Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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If anything defines the Church in the modern world it is that Christians go into buildings at regular intervals where they sing, pray, conduct rituals and listen to sermons. These events constitute their worship of God and are regarded as obligatory for any serious follower of Jesus of Nazareth.  

This sort of worship has its roots deep in the fertile soil of history - particularly in the history of the Hebrew peoples, though also in the more varied ground of other near-Eastern religions.

In the most general terms, evidence about the earliest forms of worship is usually interpreted as pointing to what we would regard as a "primitive" way of understanding the divine. One expert suggests that in early Judaism

... the deity was conceived as a being with human wants and appetites ... The true worship of God was therefore regarded as dutiful ministration to these wants by sacrifice and obedience to his behests. [1]

But worship in the ancient world could take on what we would today regard as bizarre forms. The killing of animals as a sacrifice to God was an almost universal practice at the time the basic foundations of Christian worship were being laid. This sort of worship is still practised in a minor way in many parts of Africa, to take one particular instance.

There is ample evidence that some centuries before Jesus, God as Mother was often at the centre of worship. The Hebrew Bible refers to this in places, though generally as something undesirable. Strange as it may seem, women in some cultures regarded it as their sacred duty to offer sexual favours in the local temple. James Fraser, for example, tells of a Greek inscription of the late second century which records how Aurelia Aemilia served her God in this way. He adds:

... and the publicity of the record, engraved on a marble column which supported a votive offering, shows that no stain attached to such a life ... [2]

Worship in the Church today originates from the synagogues which replaced the great Temple at Jerusalem when it was destroyed by the Roman army in the year 70. Such assemblies of people meeting for worship had existed more than 200 years before in Alexandria and elsewhere.

There appears always to have been tension between two aspects of Hebrew worship. The first emphasises the dutiful work of carrying out certain rituals to keep God placated. The second stresses the expression through ceremony of deep personal commitment to God. The former was expressed in sacrificial rituals at a local shrine, and then in more elaborate ceremonies in the Jerusalem Temple. The latter was emphasised by the prophetic tradition of the Hebrew peoples.

The New Testament uses two words for worship. The Greek latreia (Hebrew 'abodah) refers to serving God, just as a hired labourer or slave serves a master. This corresponds to service as in "Love your neighbour". The Greek word proskuneo (Hebrew hishtahawah) is linked to "bending the knee" in adoration and submission to the divine.

By all accounts, Jesus chose to ignore the Temple worship and its priestly focus (proskuneo). He emphasised instead prophetic worship (latreia). In his view, true worship consists of a dedicated heart and loving behaviour. Matthew 5.43-48 is a good example of Jesus' teaching in this respect. Traditional Hebrew teaching would have stressed ritual purity and dutiful sacrifice.

Our word "liturgy" comes from the Greek leitourgeo, which relates to a priest's cultic practices in the sense that they are a community service. A civic official would perform his leitourgos for his fellow citizens, and they would serve the poor as a leitourgos or act of charity. The modern reference to liturgy as a church "service" - primarily the celebration of the Eucharist - in fact dates back to the fifth century.

Paul's letters - our earliest record of Christian worship - take much the same line as did Jesus. For Paul, worship expresses inward faith rather than outward regulation (Romans 14). The test is whether worship helps people, not whether it is being done this way or that.

Worship is today the primary function of the Church. Witness the vast capital sunk into church buildings and the ongoing emphasis on numbers attending services in those churches. Should anyone want to know if the Church is doing well the question is, "How many people attend worship services compared with previous times." By worship is meant a liturgical event allied more to the priestly proskuneo than to the prophetic latreia.

The Roman Catholic Church accounts for some 80 percent of all Christians on the planet today. It is significant that Pope Benedict XVI and his immediate predecessors have all stressed that the Eucharist is the Church's most important expression of its role in society. Any inability of the Church to supply priests for this aspect of worship is immediately an issue. And the current shortage of candidates for the priesthood in many places is of correspondingly great concern because it affects the Church's capacity to carry out this function.

In the West, figures relating to Church membership and attendance at worship events have shown a steady decline over the past fifty years. In Canada, for example, membership of most churches has fallen by between 30 and 40 percent since the 1970s. In Britain no more than seven out of every hundred worship in a church. In Europe the percentage is even lower. In short, worship of God is no longer an important aspect of Western culture - in stark contrast to previous ages when it was an integral aspect of life.

Anglican bishop John Spong locates the problem in the disappearance of theism (belief  in a personal God) as a foundational construct through which our world is interpreted and given meaning. He thinks that as theistic images fade

... the last place where change tends to make its presence felt is in the corporate liturgies of well-established churches ... God is praised, flattered, placated, beseeched, entreated and begged in both spoken and sung words. [3]

Traditional worship is widely perceived in the West as irrelevant to the way they construe the world today. Unless a person is brought up in a traditional liturgical setting, there seems to be little chance that he or she will make worship central to their lives as the churches demand. As Spong comments,

... hearing liturgy is like listening to a language that the worshipper can neither speak nor understand ... liturgy presents the gymnastic task of twisting their minds into theological pretzels in order to mutter meaningless sounds that do not seem to connect with any reality whatsoever. [3]

Even though in the so-called developing world the picture of worship is different, the long-term prospect everywhere must be uncertain. Sooner or later the forces which have made traditional forms of worship unsuitable in the West are likely to impact the rest of the world, even if in somewhat mutated form. 

It appears, then, that if worship is to continue in Christianity it will have to change greatly. Spong and others maintain that theism is no longer a viable way of filling the otherwise empty "God" word. It seems to be difficult for most people today to relate to a personal God "out there" who intervenes in natural processes. This renders the archaic forms of most worship events virtually meaningless to those who either can't partition their lives into secular and holy, or have abandoned a theistic mode of perception.

But what will take the place of archaic, theistic worship? That is not possible to forecast because the rift between traditional Christianity and a future form of Christianity is so great. The difference is not a matter of degree but of kind. For that reason, worship is likely to become something very different from what has by-and-large existed for 15 centuries or more. As Bishop John Robinson put it with considerable foresight 40 years ago,

What looks like being required of us, reluctant as we may be for the effort involved, is a radically new mould, or meta-morphosis, of Christian belief and practice. [4]

Tinkering with the details of church worship is pointless because such a radical transformation is needed.

It may be that worship itself may have to move out of buildings set aside for it. Indeed, initiatives such as the house-church movement of the recent period may be a precursor of that sort of change. Worship may focus much more on the world of which we are the caretakers, and upon God the creator rather than the God of theism.

But even the most radical do not seem to think that worship as such will go out of the window. They acknowledge that some activity in which humans gather to affirm their visions of life will continue. Whatever happens, worship in the future is almost certain to be very different from what is known today.
[1] J S McEwen in A Theological Word Book of the Bible, SCM Press 1957
[2] The Golden Bough, Wordsworth Editions, 1993
[3] A New Christianity for a New World, HarperSanFrancisco, 2002
[4] Honest to God, SCM Press, 1963

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