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Resources for Lifelong Learners:

Why worship matters in the digital age

Craig Mueller (1988, M.Div.; 2013, D.Min.)

 Pastor Mueller presented the following remarks as part of a panel at the Congregations Project sponsored by the Institute of Sacred Music at Yale University.

The way we order customized drinks at Starbucks is the way many people do religion and spirituality these days. Choice is the order of the day. A coffee executive revealed to Diana Butler Bass that at his establishment there are 82,000 possible drink options and combinations available from his menu. According to Bass, “Choosing faith is now a bit like ordering off the menu at a high-end coffee shop— there are a host of possibilities, some simple, some complex, some already assembled, some seasonal, some regular, and some that people invent for themselves.”

We keep hearing about the “nones” – those claiming no religious affiliation. And now the “alls.” Bricolage is the word scholars use to describe this do-it-yourself, mix and match method of blending one’s own personal religious and spiritual package.

Full disclosure: I think I might be an “all.” I celebrate Christmas and I love the winter solstice. At my yoga studio there are chants to Hindu gods. I deeply value a Buddhist sense of meditation and mindfulness. I go to Catholic monasteries. I am a Jungian when it comes to working with my dreams, believing they offer wisdom for my life. And I’ve never “come out” this way before: my bricolage includes a dose of healthy agnostic doubt. At least, I do not “believe” in the kind of God espoused by the dominant voices of Christianity in this country. Or one that is about certainty rather than mystery.

How will our churches reach out to the plethora of bricolages out there? All the folks with different needs and expectations, hopes and hurts?

Some would say the train has already left the station. That we are becoming more secular, more European. That folks aren’t even looking for the “product” we are offering. Charts with downward lines: that’s all we mainline folks seem to see these days. Which congregations will last another generation? Which seminaries and denominational offices?

Some voices are hopeful. Like the provocative title of Diana Butler Bass’s recent book: Christianity after Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening. Yet, I believe Diana attends an Episcopal church, and like many of us, values church community.

One church consultant says that too many churches fixate on bucks and butts, rather than mission, ministry and “doing what matters.” Those of us who dwell regularly in the land of church budgets wonder about the future of the church in a time of decreasing commitment to institutions. Some would ask what is propelling our outreach strategies: the survival of institutions as we have known them, or a gospel message that changes people’s lives?

Do people feel like they need what we are offering them? In this time when religion has become a commodity like everything else, and we shop for churches, is our task to convince people that the “product” we offer will truly enhance their lives? Should we be changing or adapting our message? Should worship reflect our media, technological, entertainment-based society? Or should the nature of worship itself challenge the idolatries of our time, even if it means we are left with a smaller, more committed church?

I think about these things all the time. But before I go on, I should name three things that propel my reading and interest in the topic of outreach in a digital, postmodern, post-religious age:

  1. First, for over 14 years I have been pastor of a congregation on Chicago’s north side, in a community with 100,000 or so young adults in a transitional, fluid time in their lives. Many are right out of college. I am sure most don’t go to church. Yet, our growing congregation is about half young adults in their 20s and 30s. Some are seekers and drop-ins. Others become members, put down roots, and become involved.
  2. Second, our Congregations Project two years ago was to convene a conference entitled: Sects and the City: Gen Y / Gen X and Mainline Protestant worship.
  3. Third, I just completed a doctor of ministry thesis with this title: Any Body There? Embodied Liturgy, Virtuality, and Human Authenticity.

Synthesizing those three things … I would put my central question this way: In a time when people find enchantment, community, and identity through iThings and soon Google Glass with the Internet continuously connected to our bodies; and in an era of “nones” and “alls” and spiritual bricolage, can we make the case—do we believe—that an embodied gathering in community truly makes a difference—for the health and wholeness of people in our communities, and for the sake of mission to our world?

And how does worship relate to culture? How does worship connect to people’s everyday lives? Is our mission any different from those who work to make the world a better place, but we add the “Jesus thing?”

In the 1990s the Lutheran World Federation issued a statement on worship and culture that has greatly influenced the ELCA and much of our thinking. It defines worship as contextual, transcultural, crosscultural and countercultural. For our purposes, I would like us to consider four ways that worship is countercultural, that is, how it challenges the idolization of the self or the acquisition of wealth at the expense of the care of the earth and its poor.

First, worship moves us from the individual to the community. Imagine the map app on your smartphones and the little bubble that makes you the center of the universe at all times. Poet Christian Wiman says we have “deflected the soul into questions of the self.” He mentions that in order to survive, we all need to “hone ourselves, … and we project those selves in all kinds of ways, whether it’s Facebook or whatever we’re doing.”

When I ask my Millennial-generation new members what percent of their urban peers attend church, the answer is usually under twenty percent. Then I ask them what they are doing joining a congregation. Most of the answers revolve around community. We are stronger together. As people worship, sing, and pray together, something happens: a communal bond that gives perspective to the rest of life.

Second, worship invites us from hyperconnectivity to a balance of work and rest. Jaron Lanier is a computer scientist and pioneer in digital media. In his book, You are Not a Gadget, he writes: “When developers of digital technologies design a program that requires you to interact with a computer as if it were a person, they ask you to accept in some corner of your brain that you might also be conceived of as a program.”

The new normal is that most people are never “unplugged” from technology. Smart phones lie on the table next to us at dinner. It isn’t unusual for someone to go on Facebook or do something online when a meeting or class gets boring. The ping of a text, email or update gives a dose of dopamine to our brains.

A 2011 study revealed that 80% of vacationers bring along laptops or smartphones so they can check in with work. A president of an ad agency commented: “When everyone started carrying their own communication and telecommunications devices on their bodies, the boundaries between work and life collapsed.”

The distinctions between work and rest—central to Jewish and Christian understandings of worship—are breaking down. And studies are showing that this hyperconnectivity is bringing increased stress to our lives.

Should we consider worship on the Lord’s Day as the primary “spiritual practice” for Christians? A fast from technology? If people are losing the ability to unplug and reflect on their lives, can worship teach new spiritual patterns and form us in alternate ways? Can the gospel be a countercultural message in our time, reminding us that our identity is in who we are, not in what we do to fill up every spare moment.

Third, worship in real space and time brings us from the virtual to the bodily. The blend between our virtual and real lives is blurring. What does this mean for our future? For a world with Google Glass? Or current speculation about avatars with uploaded contents of our brains that can live on? (Until someone hits the delete key by mistake.)

What does it mean to be human in this day and age? From Martin Luther’s vantage point, it is not possible to be “spiritual” without bodily participation. If Luther insisted on the real bodily presence of Christ in Holy Communion, he would be baffled that many postmodern people claim the word spiritual rather than religious, contending that they can be Christian by merely being good and believing in God. Luther would deem it impossible to be Christian without the body of Christ, that is, the physical reality of Christ’s presence in the eucharist and in the gathered community.

Think of the popularity of yoga, meditation, tai chi and other spiritual experiences that connect mind, body and spirit. Perhaps the more virtual our lives become the greater the need for experiences in real space and time. Can embodied worship center us in incarnation and creation, in simple experiences of everyday life, in nature and the cycles of the earth?

Finally, worship moves us from consumerism to mission. David Lyons writes that technology has become a kind of new religion. We may not believe in God anymore, but we need mystery and wonder. We need the magic act … We want to be dazzled by shiny new objects. Before the iPad was announced, people were calling it the “Jesus tablet.”

Through media, advertising, and a near-continuous digital stream, we get reminders of who we are, what life is all about, and what will make us happy and fulfilled. The Sunday assembly reminds us of our baptismal vocation: worship and mission. Or as we say in the Lutheran baptismal rite, offering praise to God and bearing God’s creative and redeeming word to all the world.

Who or what else will remind us of this calling? Eleanor and Alan Kreider propose that as Christians we cannot participate in God’s mission without worship because “we are not strong enough or clever enough.”

I would propose that many people today want to make a difference with their lives. Can the baptismal life join them to something greater than themselves? Can we encounter in worship God’s passionate desire for our world in such a way that it transforms lives?

It may very well be that digitization and virtuality are changing what it means to be human. We could argue whether that is for better or worse. But worship grounds us in community, in a balance of work and rest, in the body and in the earth, and in a vocation of mission. Surely worship still matters.


Yale Institute of Sacred Music Congregations Project

Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Chicago’s project

Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Chicago


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Page last modified Mar 24, 2016