I just finished a book titled “Weird Church: Welcome to the Twenty-First Century” written by co-authors Beth Ann Estock and Paul Nixon. The timing of reading it was good. I am making my way through the Six Great Ends of the Presbyterian Church. After moving ahead last week, I am now returning to the third great end: the maintenance of divine worship.
Implicit in the chapters of this book is a message to the church about worship. The book is split into two major sections—the first addresses the “meta shifts” that are occurring in our religious communities that point to the end of Christendom, or said another way, the end of the church as we know it.
The second section highlights sixteen models of what the church might look like in the future. I appreciated the authors’ self-awareness with respect to this. On the one hand, they acknowledged that they and probably no one really knows what the church is going to look like a generation from now. At the same time, they make the point that we aren’t completely without evidence of what is coming. There are hints of what might be next. So they highlighted a number of innovative, experimental start-up Christian communities that point to a possible future.
But what really struck me about those sixteen models with regard to our focus today was how few of them looked anything like what we consider worship today. Of the sixteen, I think only four of them would be recognizable as “traditional Christian worship” highlighting singing, preaching and praying.
I get this. A few weeks ago a colleague surprised me when we were casually talking about what we did over the weekend. She shared engaging in various family activities and then I shared that I had spent Sunday up on the mountain snowshoeing. She replied, “Oh, is that where you worshiped this Sunday?” The question caught me by surprise, as if I just been caught doing something wrong. I replied, “Yes, that is exactly where I worshiped,” and I meant it.
Webster’s defines the act of worship as “to adore; to pay divine honors to; to reverence with supreme respect and veneration.” I can honestly say that when I am grinding my way up a mountain through a foot of new snow, with the sun glistening off the pine branches, and the deafening silence of the forest all around me that I am in a deep place of worship. Words such as awe, wonder, beauty and mystery accompany my every step. I actually don’t think about God when I am on the mountain in the same way that a person doesn’t think about their lover when they are in their lover’s embrace.
A few weeks ago, I was hiking in one of the local forests near my home. As I crested the peak there was a young couple looking at some sort of a guidebook, I thought. I paused for bit thinking they might have needed some directions. It turned out the guidebook was a Bible and I had become an easy target. The man quickly launched into the usual questions about whether I was saved, whether I believed in God and did I want to go to heaven.
I have too much experience at this to settle for giving easy answers. And so I pressed him on what he meant by heaven, his definition of God and what I was being saved from. He kept trying to pin me down to an answer that would satisfy him and then he finally asked, “Do you pray?” I responded, “Yes, I am praying right now. My whole body and soul are in prayer on this mountain.” I wanted to say, “Yes, I was praying until I met you,” but I kept my sarcastic tongue to myself.
I was serious about my answer. The apostle Paul says that we should learn to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5;17). I have discovered that the two places in my daily routine when my prayers are deepest are when I am engaged in my stream-of-consciousness journaling in the morning and when I am hiking, cycling or snowshoeing in the mountains. The mountains have a way of pitching my mind, heart and soul to divine things. In other words, I go to the mountains to worship.
In the next two months, I will worship every Sunday. But the truth is that about half of my worship will be in a sanctuary of our own creation—a church building—preaching, praying and singing with my Presbyterian community. The other half will be in a sanctuary of God’s own creation, on a mountain, in the trees, heading up a trail, with my mind, heart and soul enjoying the blissful presence of the Divine.
The third great end is the “maintenance of divine worship.” I think it’s a keeper.
But the challenge of the 21st century church is not how to get people into our buildings to worship our way. Our challenge will be to start recognizing the many ways people engage in worshipful practices.
Despite steep church decline, I don’t think worship is going away. In fact, I think we humans are hard-wired to worship. We do best when we seek out sacred places to experience awe, wonder, beauty, reverence and gratitude.
If my Sunday experiences teach me anything, it is this—worship isn’t a particular place; it’s a way of life, a way of engaging with the world.
See you on Sunday–on the peaks and in the pews!
By Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, Presbytery of the Cascades
Your message helps me to think about possible ways to think about the decline in mainline Protestant membership.
“Church” I am thankful for YouTube. I have been “worshipping” at a PC(USA) in NE PA for my “early service” and at a later time here in Oregon. I am a more TRADITIONAL style of worship person so the early service is more traditional and the local one is not.
I loved this and could really relate to it. I, also, do lots of my worshiping outdoors. God’s country. All of his glory in snow, rain, sunshine, the mountains, the ocean….thanks, Brian.
You wrote, “But the challenge of the 21st century church is not how to get people into our buildings to worship our way. Our challenge will be to start recognizing the many ways people engage in worshipful practices.”
I am inclined to think of a second step challenge. I think in many cases we’ve already recognized that worshipful practices are rampant – just not, as you’ve pointed out, “ours.” So the second part of this challenge is not only to open up to those many ways, but owning them ourselves and joining them in their journeys. The third trick, and this is major, is to figure out (at least for us pastors) how to do that and still get paid so we can make a living in the world. Perhaps the only way forward into tomorrow is to be “tent-makers” even as Paul was?
I’d be curious to hear how your encounter with the young couple went. We all seek ways to interact with evangelicals in a positive but eye- opening way. Suggestions? Ideas? Comments? Techniques? Seems like Presbyterian could help equip us to engage.
Hi G. Craig. I was out on a hike and in my soulful meditative space. So I ended up spending more time with them than I had wanted. But I also wanted to honor the spirit behind his evangelical fervor as well as give him another perspective. Essentially what happened is that he kept wanting to narrow the conversation so that it there could be a simple Yes and No answers. I kept pushing him to define what he meant by such deep theological words as heaven, God and salvation. I essentially let him know that I my experience of the world was that God shows up in many forms and can’t be limited to just a couple of narrow definitions. I also pushed back on his assumption about wanting to accept Jesus so that I could go to heaven. I think he was puzzled by my reply that I wasn’t that concerned about heaven; my bigger concern was to be faithful to God now and let God determine my eternal fate later. I think that was the only part of the conversation where he puzzled. He didn’t know what to say if I genuinely had no concern for my eternal salvation.
In the end, what I think happened is that he felt heard (the woman who might have been his mother didn’t say much) even though he wasn’t able to manipulate me to say the things he wanted to hear. But after about ten minutes of this I finally found a way to part ways by saying, “I can assure you that I take these issues seriously” and then I folded my hands and bowed to him and said, “I believe God honors our good intentions. May God bless our conversation and ongoing journey on the path.” It was the right metaphor to use as this whole encounter took place on a hiking path.
Interestingly, in terms of staying in a prayerful meditative state I think I stayed with the encounter the right length of time. If I had dismissed him and walked away my spirit would not have felt right. But after about 10 minutes I felt that had I stayed longer I would have felt that I was letting myself be abused.
Thank you for the follow up question.
“Yes, I am praying right now. My whole body and soul are in prayer on this mountain.” I loved this so much it made me laugh in delight. As a Buddhist monk said once when asked about when he meditated, “I am never not meditating.” You are never not praying. Beautiful.