Editor’s note: This is the first of two parts.
One of the more significant decisions one faces in life is the choice of a “community of faith” to which to belong. For some, it’s easy. For many, it’s not.
Amidst all the confusion that can accompany such a decision, it would appear that there are at least three basic types of faith communities from which to choose (and every locale is well represented by them). They are what I affectionately refer to as 1) formulaic “liturgical” centers, 2) emotionally active and interactive gatherings or 3) more-or-less passive, intellectual think-tanks. There are also many hybrids of these — a variety of combinations of the above “types.” Liturgical groups, e.g., appeal largely to the senses — and the inner spirit. Emotionally active gatherings appeal more to basic human emotions (“worshiping with the whole body”) — and the inner spirit. Intellectual think-tanks appeal more to the mind and to reason — and the inner spirit.
Liturgical communities are characterized by impressive worship patterns, which tend to be formal, solemn, beautiful, awe-inspiring and often memorable, even though at first one might not know just exactly what one is “expected to do” while at worship. There are also scripture readings, a sermonette, prayers and well-rehearsed music.
Emotional worship, on the other hand, involves (requires?) strong congregational participation. It is rather informal, somewhat spontaneous, employs much music, often rhythmic singing and chanting, and usually features musical instruments. Although such services often seem somewhat disorganized and uninhibited, they often provide worshipers with a time of elation, feel-good joy, a Biblical challenge via extemporaneous speaking and outer and inner warmth.
The more intellectual communities feature a more orderly setting, usually dominated by the sermon and a high quality and well-arranged caliber of musical expression (by organ, other instruments, vocal soloists, and/or well-trained and disciplined singers), which is often based on a long tradition of religious and historically sacred music compositions, or else simpler and more easily singable pieces from more contemporary church musicians. The sermon is carefully prepared and is often delivered from notes or a fully written manuscript (which can then be made available to shut-ins and other absent church-goers), and uses Biblical texts but may be accompanied as well by pertinent excerpts from the contemporary literary scene. The sermon may be strictly related to Biblical teachings per se, or it may share Biblically relevant commentary on modern-day social and cultural concerns that may have national import or simply local community interest. This service presents its worshipers with a great deal to individually think about, talk about and pray about.
But now is the time to interject a word of caution. The above “types” are admittedly too simplistically portrayed. Choosing, or being chosen by, a faith community is not like shopping for a car or for the best cut of steak to grill. If you desire a tailor-made religious experience and you insist on being your own tailor, your religious experience may not end up being very useful over time. If you prefer a highly liturgical worship format, if only for its impressive style and drama, chances are your commitment to it may risk being little more than a superficial pretense at a life of real faith. If you like a highly emotional worship format, perhaps for its excitement and its personal activities and interaction that goes with it, and you also like to “revel” in what may be described as nostalgia for “old-time religion,” you may find your religious experience and spiritual sensitivity beginning to wane after a while, or it may actually fall apart when a personal crisis comes along. If you prefer the intellectual worship format, chances are your religious experience might take the form of a kind of philosophy of life rather than a living faith.
Of course, the catch here is that, first of all, authentic religious experiences are neither ONLY just liturgical or emotional or intellectual. An authentic faith-experience in a worship setting involves most of these expressional needs, and perhaps many more. I am suggesting that authentic religion with its vital faith impulses finds its source, its motivation and its spiritual appetite not exclusively in any one of the above “types” of settings, but rather in a certain few commonly recognizable principles of a God-given life, whatever worship setting you may choose. These are principles that seem to flow from the divine well-spring — basic principles that allow and encourage us to build upon our own understanding of human nature and our relationship to fellow-humans, and to enable our own understanding of God and His will for us, as well as to enhance our own sensing of the universe that surrounds and envelops us and our relationship to it.
In next week’s In The Spirit column, I should like to enumerate four such God-given “principles” that come quickly to mind, “principles” that have stood me in good stead during my entire life of faith. Meanwhile, I wish you well in your continuing search for a meaningful faith community, if you don’t already have one, which will help you find and be and become what God wants you to find and be and become in this often challenging and unexpected life journey of ours.
The Rev. Richard G. Parker is a retired American Baptist and United Methodist minister, who resides in Newburyport with his spouse, Karen. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.