In a cultural moment when everything seems to be commodified and utilitarian the conversation about the role of religion has taken on a different tone than at other points in history. Within ever widening Christian circles religious broadcasting has centered three distinct elements as core to any conversation about liturgy and worship. Those three elements being that liturgy has become increasingly personality driven, crowd dependent, and entertainment oriented (Walton 2009). Regardless of ecclesiastical, theological, or political perspectives of individual churches the impact of mass media and multimedia realities has reformed the way leaders engage the life of the church. These three elements that now ground our conversations and realities mean a new ethos has become normalized within many institutions. This ethos of commodification means that religion is not primarily concerned with being profitable, rather the focus for far too many is that religion has become profit driven! Ritual, broadly speaking, is a shared action expressive of common strivings rooted in common values (Fromm, Psychoanalysis & Religion 1950). By this definition the rituals of the church have been hijacked and perverted by leaders who are using the church and her liturgies for fame rather than to spread the message of liberation found in the teachings of Jesus.
Culture is not simply an intruding power that one has to resist. It is a space in which one lives, the air one breathes (Volf 2011). Unfortunately, in too many instances, the church has forgotten it is a countercultural organism. Intoxicated with the unfiltered air of the present culture, the church is failing in its responsibility to speak out against the pollutants of culture which fight against humanity’s highest collective and individual self. Without the ability to offer (and be) a cultural critique, the church has slipped into an insanity of sorts. Whenever one loses the capacity to perceive actuality, one has succumbed to dangerous mental health challenges. The psychotic person builds up an inner world of reality in which they seem to have full confidence. Living in their own world, common factors of reality as perceived by others are unreal to them (Fromm 1947). In this way, the church has become insane, having lost the ability to see the factors that have caused the church to take on the identity of the culture around her.
The primary function of our spiritual gatherings is not personality-driven entertainment, designed to captivate crowds who are then motivated to feed the machine of the material success of that central personality. The primary task of our spiritual gatherings is to present people with truths which are their own reason and enjoin practices that are their own justification (Buell 2006). That is to say, we gather together to assist people in producing wholeness, through principles that are themselves whole. We speak that which is virtuous and leads to virtue. Any spirituality, especially that which is organized religion, liberal or conservative, must be not only emotionally satisfying, but intellectually credible, and morally worthy of respect (Maslow 1978).
While it is true that a viable religion is one that has a working reciprocity with the culture that produces it or with which it interacts, the culture alone cannot dictate the content, intent, or direction of the rituals of that religion (Townes 1995). The church must return to its task of probing the message of Jesus in meaningful ways that become life-giving rituals to the faithful and the questioning alike. This may mean that the future church is less centered on personality, less entertainment oriented, and less crowd dependent. It may call for the church to hold the tension between its role as countercultural and contextual. We may have to look at a less hierarchical structure while figuring out how to honor ancient ecclesial roles simultaneously. Whatever it will mean, it is certain that we need to rethink the way we show up in the age of mass media!
Ask yourself, what are the countercultural elements of worship in your church that need to be magnified? How do you see the interaction of church and media, and its impact on worship? In what ways have your local church disremembered its call?
Feel free to comment below.
Peace Is Possible,
Rt. Rev. Edward Donalson III, DMin | Director of Liturgy and Worship | Assistant Clinical Professor
SCHOOL OF THEOLOGY AND MINISTRY | SEATTLE UNIVERSITY
Buell, Lawrence, ed. 2006. The American Transcendentalists: Essential Writings. New York: The Modern Library .
Fromm, Erich. 1947. Man for Himself : AN Inquiry into the Psychology of Ethics. New York: Holt Paperbacks.
—. 1950. Psychoanalysis & Religion. New Haven & London: Yale University Press.
Maslow, Abraham H. 1978. Religions, Values, and Peak Experiences. New York: Pengiun Books.
Townes, Emilie M. 1995. In a Blaze of Glory: Womanist Spiriutality As Social Witness. Nashville: Abingdon Press.
Volf, Miroslav. 2011. A Public Faith. Grand Rapids: BrazosPress.
Walton, Jonathan L. 2009. Watch This! The Ethics and asthetics of Black Televangelism. NewYork: New York University Press.