What is worship? I mean, the gathering together of people to sing hymns, say prayers, hear the thoughts of a hopefully learned speaker, read texts (sacred or otherwise), and share rituals (whether as simple as the candle lighting ritual of the UUs or the shard silence of the Quakers, or as elaborate as the symbolic love feast that many Christians call the Eucharist or Holy Communion) – what is really the purpose of all that?
Is it to help us be moral or “good”? Not really. We learned some sense of right and wrong from our families and the code of conduct of our schools. There are laws to dissuade us from hurting one another, stealing from one another, damaging property, and so on. And anyway, most of us could figure out that unrestrained selfishness can have negative consequences so some standard of behavior would find its way into our lives. Besides, how many bigots, homophobes, misogynists, tax evaders, perpetrators of violence, slanderers, gossips, child abusers, unfit pet caregivers, and general scoundrels go to church every Sunday?! No, clearly we don’t need to go to church to be good, nor does going to church assure us that we will be well behaved.
Is worship, at the church, synagogue, mosque, sangha, or coven, if not to make us “good” then really to help us find God/dess (Spirit, Higher Power, insert meaningful symbol of ultimate reality here)? Maybe on some level for some of us, but why do we keep going once we find It? Cannot the spirit of life and hope and community be accessed in nature, in relationships, in private times of personal reflection, in 12 Step meetings, and so on? And anyway, if we believe in God, don’t we have some sense that It is a ubiquitous presence? How could we ever be separated from what is divine?
Is worship then an intellectual exercise? I mean, there are texts to reflect on, and a homily/sermon/message/lecture/lesson given in most cases. There are religious education classes and spiritual literature/brochures/booklets distributed. Maybe we just like learning. That would be true of the more curious among us, but libraries, universities, public lectures, public broadcasting, and book stores are also good venues for learning. Even without religion, we would find ways to engage our minds if we desired such stimulation.
Maybe worship leads to service and service leads to significance. In worship we are often encouraged to give charitably, to work for justice, to volunteer our time and talent, do something that might ease someone’s burdens in life. Service is valuable, but again, there are those who aren’t particularly religious but who give to charity, who volunteer time, who try to be a good friend to someone in need or who always seek to be a helpful neighbor.
Perhaps worship, then, is social. Maybe we just like to be around people. Maybe it feels good to sing together, to visit at the coffee hour, to shake hands (or hold hands if the liturgy allows), to make personal connections and to express care and concern when fellow worshipers are ill or otherwise struggling in their lives (and, similarly, it may feel good to be cared about during our difficult times). Celebrations of joy (weddings, baptisms) and cathartic/healing rituals (memorials/funerals) also bring us together to share our joys and concerns. Maybe religion is just a really good way to make friends and build community.
And of all the reasons explored so far, this is the one that may hold the most (holy) water! Religion (along with government, family, economy, and education) is one of the five basic social institutions. Maybe religion is very important for society, or for most of human history for our evolutionary good (religion brings us together, and together we are more likely to help one another, to not be as alone, and therefore to be better able to survive some of life’s hardships).
Yes, religion as a social institution and evolutionary aid (helping protect the species by bringing us together) is pretty important. But in a world of dating services, bowling leagues, book clubs, hospitals, nursing homes, support groups, and even the internet, maybe religion is now just one of several ways that we come together to help one another. For worship to be truly meaningful, it must be more than even socialization (which is, however, a good product of religion).
Remember, theatre came out of religious festivals. And people go to the theatre (and presumably the movies, the opera, concerts, pep rallies, etc.), according to playwright/director/social critic David Mamet, “to be delighted, amused, and shocked. To be brought to life, in short.”
That’s it! People come to worship for the same reason they go to worship’s love child – the theatre! People share the worship experience in hopes of experiencing both joy and scandal. People worship to be more fully alive!
Worship isn’t fire insurance to save us from an after-life booby trap.
Worship isn’t the road map to a God forever playing Hide-n-Seek.
Worship isn’t just an inexpensive way to learn myths, histories, rituals, and ancient opinions.
Worship isn’t something that makes us good.
Worship isn’t even primarily to inspire us to do good work (though it can, and that is wonderful).
Worship, in the end, must even be more than a social enterprise (though it is at least that).
No, worship is a shared attempt to live more abundantly.
Whether the music is from an organ, a guitar, or a capella singers, whether the homilist’s jokes are dry or a little naughty, whether the ritual is simple or complex, whether the story-telling is extemporaneous or read from a book, people come together for worship to share an experience of being delighted and shocked.
It’s shocking to hear about a virgin conceiving, and for those who literalize the story, it can be shocking to hear that it may be a story rather than a historical/biological fact.
On Good Friday, it is shocking to bring to mind the horrors of the torture called crucifixion, and to the humanist, it is shocking to hear that some people believe that God wanted such torture for Jesus; for fundamentalists, it might be shocking to hear Presbyterian theologian Delores Williams declare, “there is nothing of God in the blood of the cross.”
And to those who know that same-gender love and attraction are normal, have always existed in every society in every age, and that homosexuality exists in hundreds of species will be shocked to learn that some people hide behind religion to justify their homophobia; while those who always heard that God shared their prejudice against gays and lesbians will be shocked to hear that divine love does not exclude Queer people but indeed, being gay can be considered a special blessing from God!
Oh yes, we come to be delighted, to be amused, and to be shocked. And the more we get what we came for, the more we’ll return and spread the word to others that they need to try this experience.
At Sunshine Cathedral, we show film clips, we tell stories, we share rituals, we sing, we dance, we entertain (we know that’s one of the reasons people come to church, just as it is why they go to the movies, the cabaret, or a play). And, we don’t shy away from thoughts that might be shocking. We challenge oppressive theologies, and to challenge a theology one has held dear for decades can seem shocking, and liberating, and healing, and thrilling. We may be better, God may be bigger, and life may be open to more investigation than we were ever before led to believe. How thrilling that is to discover!
There may be many reasons to worship, but chiefly among them are the desires to be amused, delighted, and shocked. I honestly hope that at Sunshine Cathedral, we meet those needs in abundance week after week!