Wednesday, January 27, 2010

What is Empty Religion?

By The Rev. Doug Sangster
Rector, Church of the Holy Trinity, Houston, TX

Lori and I have friends who live in Ft. Worth. They attend a gorgeous church with dark hardwood floors, an ornate rood screen, and a stunning altar that are perfectly coordinated with the rest of the sanctuary.

Once when we worshipped with them I heard the squeak of the door. I turned and saw three people cross themselves and slide quietly into a pew. A moment later, I heard the hinges again. More people signing themselves and settling into pews. By this time the priest was consecrating the elements. Then the hinges signaled a third time. Now there were more people in the back than in the front.

“Come to the Marriage Supper of the Lamb.” Lori and I communed and returned to our pew. When I looked up I was shocked to see that the people who came in after the sermon were at the rail. Incredulity crawled across my face. My friend whispered, “They do that almost every week.”

During the next few moments, I realized that it’s possible to have all the accoutrements of worship and still turn God into a genie, a God Who “loves” people without reforming their lives. And it occurred to me that it’s possible to be heirs of the English Reformation and still be superstitious and impious.

Author David Wells writes the following about this condition. “It is one of the defining marks of our time that God is now weightless. I do not mean by this that he is ethereal but rather that he has become unimportant. He rests upon the world so inconsequentially as not to be noticeable. He has lost his saliency for human life. Those who assure the pollsters of their belief in God’s existence may nonetheless consider Him less interesting than television, His commands less authoritative than their appetites for affluence and influence, His judgments no more awe-inspiring than the evening news, and His truth less compelling than the advertiser’s sweet fog of flattery and lies. That is weightlessness” (God in the Wasteland p88).

How do Churches slide into spiritual decline? Do you remember Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof? In the movie someone asks him how the Jews in Russia maintained their identity in a time of change. “Tradition,” he says. Then he is asked where tradition came from. “I will tell you,” he says. “I don't know!” Tradition and ignorance can be a toxic alloy that can easily morph into mindless tradition, a mere “going through the motions.”

As I sat in that beautiful church in Ft. Worth and looked at the long line of parishioners who regularly skip the reading and preaching of God’s Word, it occurred to me that the liturgy had become an end in itself, not a means to an end. That is spiritually perilous, and those who believe it’s okay to disregard God in that fashion are toying with their souls.