Thursday, June 4, 2009

A Thought on Worship

A book that I'm likely to reference frequently here is Mirror to the Church: Resurrecting Faith after Genocide in Rwanda. It is by a Ugandan Roman Catholic priest and scholar, Emmanuel Katongole, who teaches at the Duke Divinity School. It is a book that fell into my hands somewhat accidentally, not something I would have normally sought out, but seems to have animated my imagination in ways that few books on religion have. His main hypothesis is that what happened in Rwanda in 1994 is reflective of how the church in many societies, in the West as well as in Africa, operates. That is, the church as it currently exists simply doesn't matter. It didn't matter that Rwanda has been considered one of the most successfully evangelized African nations. Christians killed Christians and often in direct, hand-to-hand combat (which, for some reason, strikes me as even more atrocious than if the genocide had been accomplished by long-range missiles or even simply pulling a trigger on a gun---hacking people to death with a machete is much more . . . personal).

Katongole asks, what difference does being a Christian make? If we call ourselves Christian but then can kill our fellow church members simply because the government says they're the enemy, what good is saying we follow Christ?

As I say, there is much in this relatively short book (it's under 200 pages) that I will likely bring up in weeks and maybe months to come, but I want to put out there one short quote from him (in part because I was at a worship and music committee meeting today):

"I do not think it is any accident that the civil rights movement in the United States grew out of black churches where people were used to worshiping Jesus for two, three, even four hours at a time. Christians who cannot imagine worshiping God that long may want to reconsider their cost/benefit analysis of discipleship."

This strikes me as terribly indicting of the church when I hear complaints that a worship service goes more than 10 minutes over an hour or that a hymn was too long or there simply were too many hymns.

I'm not sure I'm advocating 3 hour worship services, but I am pondering the cost of being a church member. That is, I'm wondering if we even think there is a cost to being a church member. What are we willing to "pay" for the right to call ourselves disciples?

(Obviously, this is a question applicable to countless other areas of a Christian life, not just worship. Spin it where the Spirit leads.)


  1. I wonder if your post speaks to the disconnect between religion and spirituality? My guess is there are many more people who identify themselves as a particular religion, than have understanding of spiritual life. I think of religion almost as a cultural identity, and spirituality as, ultimately, the potential fruit of religious teachings. Y'know: religion is the finger pointing at the moon.

  2. Yes, it is all a test. :)

    The disconnect between religion and spirituality is probably worth of a book. It may just take a book to define the terms. I'm not one of those who say "I'm spiritual but not religious" because I'm both. While I might be able to talk about the two terms separately, I find it really hard to separate them in my life. I'm spiritual and religious.

    I think "religion" has become a dirty word, and I can even understand why that is so. I'm careful in how I use. Usually. I can be as careless with my words as anyone. But the Latin root for "religion" is also at the root of a word like "ligament." There's a connecting, binding aspect to it. The word religion has come to bring up ideas of separation and discord, when at its root, it speaks to connecting people, binding us together (in a good way, I should add, not in a restrictive way).

    Christianity has always had some trouble with the word "religion," though. Some would say Christianity is the religion-less religion, that, despite the centuries of layers of doctrines and rules and whatnot, at it's most basic, Christianity is about relationship with God and freedom from law. I can go along with that. I'm also quite fond of my religious rituals, which I recognize as being not at the core of being a Christian, but is tightly interwoven with my spirituality.

    I'm also reminded of the 1970's Jesus people movement slogan: "I'm not religious, I just love the Lord." I can commend that, but I also have to confess that's not who I am. I am religious and I love the Lord.

    I seem to have written a blog entry in a reply. This will likely happen again. :)

  3. Thanks for the response, Neil and the mini-blog post :)

    I, too, find ritual essential. Yes, there is something inherently artistic and theatrical about ritual that resonates with me, but also, ritual is what communicates with that part of us that is non-verbal. Ritual bypasses the intellectual, analyzing self - ritual goes for the "right brain", for the "heart"...I think it is the ritual element that initially drew me to non-Christian ecstatic paths, and it is ritual that draws me to "high" church stuff that the Catholics and Greek Orthodox embrace.

  4. I am fairly convinced that time limits on worship is strictly a racial thing. It is so freeing to be in an environment where no one sits there checking their watches. In fact, the last thing I do in the sacristy is take mine off.

  5. How does this book differ from Left to Tell?

  6. To be honest, I haven't read Left to Tell, so I don't know. My guess is that the difference is that Left to Tell is shelved in Biography and Mirror to the Church is shelved in Christianity. The former looks like a memoir of one who lived through the genocide, the other is a theologian who was not there doing theological reflection on the event. (To be fair the theologian, though absent, has personal investment in the events---though he grew up in Uganda, his parents were Rwandan.) But these are guesses based upon the back cover. I suppose I'll have to read Left to Tell before commenting further.