In Reaching for the Invisible God, Philip Yancey describes visiting a Russian prison that had its own chapel (a rarity at the time). One of the men in Yancey’s party asked the priest, Brother Bonifato, to say a prayer for the prisoners there. Yancey describes the elaborate process that soon unfolded.
“A prayer? You want a prayer?” Brother Bonifato asked, and we nodded. He disappeared behind the altar at the end of the room. He brought out another icon of the Lady Who Takes Away Sadness, which he propped up on a stand. Then he removed two candle holders and two incense bowls, which he laboriously hung and lit. Their sweet fragrance instantly filled the room. He removed his headpiece and outer vestments, and laced shiny gold cuffs over his black sleeves. He placed a droopy gold stole around his neck, and then a gold crucifix. He carefully fitted a different, more formal headpiece on his head. Before each action, he paused to kiss the cross or genuflect. Finally, he was ready to pray.
Prayer involved a whole new series of formalities. Brother Bonifato did not say prayers; he sang them, following the score from a liturgy book propped on another stand. Finally, twenty minutes after Ron had requested a prayer for the prisoners, Brother Bonifato said “Amen,” and we exited the prison into the bracing air outside.
No doubt such formalities would strike most American Christians as odd, to say the least. Yancey admits as much, noting the differences between the Orthodox Church and Western Christianity when it comes to how we ought to worship and approach God. But then he goes on to note:
I knew that Brother Bonifato was no otherworldly mystic, for I had seen his service among criminals in a place that could only be called a dungeon. His tradition had taught him, though, that you do not approach the Other as you would approach your own kind. The ritual helped him move from a spirit of urgency and immediacy — the demands of the prison ministry — to a place of calm whose rhythms were the rhythms of eternity.
Compare Yancey’s description with a recent Sun Sentinel piece that describes the move of several Florida churches to incorporating shorter church services into their schedule.
Some South Florida churches struggling with shrinking attendance are shortening their traditional Sunday services, promising to get a generation with limited attention spans out the door in as little as 30 minutes.
These abbreviated ceremonies are an innovation leaders hope will lure back the enormous numbers of young people who avoid Sundays at church. With distractions such as the Internet and a weak connection to the faith of their childhoods, many are steering clear, to the dismay of religious leaders who desperately want them back.
“We are increasingly aware of the time pressures on families, and they have been telling us that the traditional service is too long for them,” said the Rev. Chip Stokes of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Delray Beach. “We recognize that things are changing and we have to be more adaptive without losing our core.”
[L]eaders of churches trying the shortened approach hope these condensed ceremonies present over-scheduled families and time-deprived adults with an incentive to return to religion.
I’m sympathetic to the plight of parents struggling with young children in the sanctuary, particularly if their church doesn’t offer any good children’s education or nursery facilities. I know that there have been times when I wished, while struggling with my child who is making a ruckus, that the clock would move a little faster.
My initial reaction to this, however, was rather dismissive as a whole. Who are these sorry people, I wondered, who can’t stand to sit in church for an hour out of their week? I quickly realize the hypocrisy of such a question, though, because oftentimes, I’m one of those sorry people. As much as I would like to think that I’d enjoy something akin to what Yancey describes — a more solemn, meditative approach to worship that would allow me to put aside the outside world and immerse myself in the “rhythms of eternity” — the truth is far different.
I am impatient, and though I absolutely see the value of coming into the House of the Lord, I want to do so “efficiently”. I want to be able to check it off my “to do” list and get on with the rest of my week. Even taking time out of my busy schedule — which is rarely as busy as I’d like to think it is — to spend a few minutes meditating on the Word seems laborious. I find myself fidgeting, restless, wondering if I’m missing something really good on TV or, even worse, Facebook.
There is no doubt that prevailing attitudes towards religion are changing in this country; as many as 20% of American adults now describe themselves as “unaffiliated” with any religion, and the number of people describing themselves as “Protestant” is now below 50%. Churches are wrestling with dropping attendance numbers, and so it’s entirely reasonable to develop new tactics for putting (and keeping) people in the pews.
And yet, having said that, and being sympathetic to the concerns of folks like Rev. Stokes, I worry that adopting a more pragmatic, consumer-based approach to church and worship shifts our focus. Church becomes more about us, i.e., how it fits into our schedules and what we can get out of it in the most effective way possible. It becomes less about God, Whose House we are entering. We put God and any worship we render to Him, and any experience we might have of Him, on our timetable. At the very least, that should strike us as somewhat arrogant.
Here, Yancey’s words — “you do not approach the Other as you would approach your own kind” — cut me to the quick. Again, I write this admitting that I’m just as guilty of such arrogance as anyone. And I write this also recognizing the challenges facing many churches today as people become increasingly comfortable with having little to no traditional religious affiliation. There’s a great tension here that more churches will begin to experience in the coming months and years. But we must be careful, lest our attempts to be engaging and accommodating actually leave us with an impoverished ability to experience those “rhythms of eternity” that Yancey mentions.