Every day, a different blog post or online article pops up with a headline that reads something like this: “Why the Young/ Boomers/ Democrats/ Coffee-Drinkers Don’t Go to Church,” or “Why I Still Go to Church,” or “Why the People You Think Are Going to Church Really Aren’t,” or some such nonsense.
All of us who have some stake in the church business are really concerned about the drop-off in our customer base. We are sloooooowly taking notice that people really aren’t too interested in Sunday morning services anymore.
No amount of hip music, emergent elements, cool pastors, or incense and bells seems to be doing the trick. The idea of the church service — the actual hour-long construct of worship, consisting of music, liturgy, sermon, and communion — doesn’t hold water anymore.
Don’t hate on me for pointing this out. It’s the way things are these days.
Those of us who are church nerds really love the hour of worship. We know the correct liturgical colors for the season; we love singing all five verses of Charles Wesley hymns, and might even be able to tell you the occasion of its authorship. We have our preferred musical arrangement of the communion service. We know how the church sanctuary ought to be constructed for theological soundness and maximum comfort.
But we are rapidly becoming a tiny minority in a sea of humanity which doesn’t really care. In one sense, I don’t really blame them — correct liturgical practice does not lead to soul transformation.
The real question, however, and the only one that matters, is whether or not God shows up for church. If God is the focus of the liturgy, then it probably doesn’t matter who attends our services, as long as we are certain to be speaking to, praying to, singing to this God.
Yet we can’t answer this question easily or quickly.
At a crucial period in the life of God’s people, the Israelites, God apparently stopped paying attention to their worship.
We love to quote Amos 5:24, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” Yeah, that’s good stuff. But the three verses which come just before this lovely quote is stern and unyielding criticism — of Hebrew worship services!
God says, “I hate, I reject your festivals; I don’t enjoy your joyous assemblies. If you bring me your burnt offering and gifts of food — I won’t be pleased; I won’t even look at your offerings of well-fed animals. Take away the noise of your songs; I won’t listen to the melody of your harps.” (CEB).
The Hebrew people had been having church as usual. They used the traditional liturgy, sang all the good old hymns, and brought their tithes and offerings for the plate. Everything was liturgically correct.
And God wasn’t interested. Wouldn’t listen, wouldn’t accept, wouldn’t hear, would not participate.
There was no transcendence, no beauty or mystery. God simply didn’t show up.
Why? Because the people who worshipped God on the special festival and worship days, didn’t actually live as if God even existed all of the rest of the days of the year. They separated their lives into different compartments; they put God-matters into the religious category, but everything else was political or social or economic or personal.
Very few people seemed to recognize that God actually cares more about those things than in the number of candles on the altar. God cares about justice in the streets, about living wages and employment, about domestic violence and child abuse, about politicians who take bribes from lobbyists, about voting restrictions, about racism and sexism and classism, about the growing division between rich and poor — about everyday life!
God is looking for shalom to break out in every corner of human society. And when God can’t see that, when all God can see and hear is a few old souls singing, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” and lighting a few candles in memory of their loved ones, then no wonder that God stops showing up.
The point of church is, and has always been, the coming of the kingdom of God. When we stopped yearning for it, hoping for it, and working for it, maybe God lost interest. When we turned church into a feel-good, self-help session with tips for parenting in the suburbs, maybe God got busy doing real work in the slums. When we turned church into a citadel of Christian orthodoxy which stubbornly clings to every last word in the Bible, maybe God got tired of speaking to us in the present.
The whole point of worship, then, is to re-imagine the world as the kind of place that God originally designed, and then to go out and live in that reawakened imagination.
When we stop doing justice in our everyday lives, then the worship experience has been invalidated and cheapened. It no longer makes any sense. It loses its tether to earthy reality, current events, local context, and neighborhood engagement, which God so desperately cares about.
According to Amos, the correct response would have been to STOP going to worship, STOP offering sacrifices and tithes, and BEGIN doing justice in the city. I don’t know exactly what that would have liked like in ancient Israel and Judah, but I think I have a suspicion about what that might look like in contemporary America.
Where, oh where, should we start?