Tuesday, September 13, 2011

So Much Chatter

One of the big differences between life in Europe and life in the United States is the proliferation of churches, or at least churches which are used for their intended purpose. I still find it remarkable that a town the size of Charlottesville has so many churches of various types, both denominational and non. According to a church directory website, Charlottesville has:
  • 8 Baptist congregations
  • 2 Independent Baptist congregations
  • 1 Southern Baptist congregation
  • 6 Roman Catholic congregations
  • 2 Christian Disciples of Christ congregations
  • 6 Episcopalian congregations
  • 2 Lutheran congregations
  • 5 United Methodist congregations
  • 7 Non-denominational congregations
  • 1 Greek Orthodox congregation
  • 1 Pentecostal congregation
  • 5 Presbyterian congregations
That's 46 congregations on a church directory, and I am sure there are a few missing from that particular source. The thing is, Charlottesville has a population of only about 43,000, so that is at least 1 church for every 930 people. There is one street in Charlottesville which has at least 5 churches on it, about twice as many as my home island of Benbecula in the Outer Hebrides. This post though isn't about the proliferation of churches in American cities, but rather about the titles those organisations give themselves.

Lately, the trend seems to be ditching the world "church" and branding yourself a "worship center". Perhaps it is an attempt to make church seem a bit more approachable and "customer friendly", but I can't help but think it is an attempt to be trendy and "relevant". It also makes me wonder what is understood by "worship", and the cynical side of me is fairly sure that it is the touchy-feely, U2-lite sing song version of "worship" that prevails.

On my way in to the office this morning, I drove past a church, sorry "worship center", with a sign saying at said meeting place you could "enjoy Christ-centered worship here". Perhaps I am over egging the pudding a bit, but I find that sign mildly disturbing. Let's start with the idea of that worship is something you "enjoy". When you look at the dictionary definition of "worship" there are words like "pay homage", "reverence", "honour" and "adore", there isn't anything about actually "enjoying" the act of worship, especially given that "enjoy" means to "experience pleasure for oneself". The very thought of "enjoying" worship seems almost antithetical, if not downright oxymoronic. That's not to say that worship should be dull and lifeless, but rather that to "enjoy" it is to bring the focus on the individual rather than the object of worship.

The second part of the slogan again seems pretty innocuous, but could also be read as a sly dig at other churches, I mean "worship centers" (please note I am only using the American spelling of "centre" because that is the context in which I have seen these titles). Is the worship at the meeting place in question more Christian than at other churches which don't feel the need to state the obvious? Surely for Christian congregations, all worship is "Christ-centered" because Jesus of Nazareth is the basis of the religion?

Again then we come back to that word "worship" and its meaning, but first a little etymology. The origins of the word lie back in the days of Old English and the word "weorthscipe", which can itself be broken into "weorþ" and "scieppan". The word "weorþ" when used as an adjective means "worthy, honoured, noble, honourable, of high rank; valued, dear, precious; fit, capable", while "scieppan" is a verb that means "to shape, form, make, create". Put the two words together and you have the idea of making something honourable, something worthy, something precious. Note, there is no enjoyment here, but rather paying due homage to a superior. Eventually "weorthscipe" morphed into "worthship" and from there the modern "worship".

So what would be a good definition of "worship"? Well, I would propose something along the lines of "paying due homage to a person worthy of receiving it", hence the word "worship" does not have a uniquely ecclesiastical usage. Going back to the time of Chaucer, at the very beginnings of English literature, "worship" was used as an honorific title for mayors, which was eventually extended also to Justices of the Peace and magistrates. As such, worship is an act of respect, not something from which to gain gratification.


Anonymous said...

With so many denominations and "brands" for Christian worhip is it any wonder that the message of Christ appears diluted and irrelevant in the modern world. The message is no more or no less relevant than it has been for 2 millenia, but is confused by the differing theologies espoused by the differing denominations. Surely, there is one overriding truth (theology being a human concept) and that is that God loves ALL the world, irrespective of race, sex, sexual persuasion, and many other human created divisions, including theology.

As for "worship" itself, if a worshipper is sincere in the praise and reverence of the God to whom they worship then enjoyment of the contact with God and enjoyment of the experience and knowledge of God's love is an essential aspect of the relationship and should not be portrayed as being self-satisfying. God would want us to enjoy His presence and so we shouldn't be ashamed of expressing that enjoyment.

Good to see you back, Velkyal

Velky Al said...

Isn't there an argument for saying that the various shades of theology, with all their competing truth claims actually show the humanity of religion - in the sense that it is a human construct devised, in perhaps simpler times, to explain the world in which the religion or theology arose?

Perhaps religion and theology rightly belong in the world of anthropoly and the study of humanity.

PhotogMark said...

I'm going to resist the temptation to get into a debate over this - since it'd be so much for fun to discuss it over a pint - but I did want to offer a simple response. Given a belief system that includes the Christian God as described in the bible (which granted, like any other belief system, including "unbelief", must be taken on faith), then religion IS much greater than a human construct. And theology becomes the struggle to understand, to some degree, that which is eternal and beyond our ability (thank God) to comprehend. The HUMAN problem is that we want to be "right", so our various theological SYSTEMS begin to compete - and that IS a very HUMAN characteristic.

I'd also say that while the diversity of churches in America is not (IMHO) bad, the competition and lack of love and unity BETWEEN those churches reflects our failure to DO the primary thing Jesus told us to do (in his words and by his life). But the beauty (as you know) of Jesus' message, and the story of the New Testament, is that while we followers of Jesus will inevitably fail to fully BE what Jesus called us to be, he has also promised to TRANSFORM us, and the world, into something that IS truly beautiful, loving, and glorious.

Again, I'd much rather take this conversation to the pub than to have it in cyberspace, but I agree with Anon above that it's good to see you back on Diamonds & Rust, dear friend.