Thursday, May 20, 2010


On May 8 I posted a piece regarding planning a worship service that I called Constructing an Experience. As I've been listening to the Stephen Prothero book, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know and Doesn't, I've been thinking a bit about that blog entry. Is constructing an experience what I'm really doing each week... or should it be?

Prothero goes through the history of religious literacy in the United States and presents a model with a clear shift from head to heart over the years. He says that in the early days of the United States, sermons were doctrinal, almost like theological lectures. Faith included a serious helping of knowledge. Almost all early colleges/universities in the US were founded as training schools for clergy and the common schools and Sundays schools of the time, both aimed at educating the population, all taught religious doctrine. Being a Christian meant knowing a significant amount of material. Prothero says that there was a growing anti-intellectualism that really took hold during the 2nd Great Awakening in the early 1800's where illiterate preachers moved to the forefront and many leading evangelists bragged at their lack of education. Christianity moved from the head to the heart and sermons became more story based, aimed at getting an emotional response.

I don't know enough about the history of that period to know how accurate Prothero's take on it is, but I suspect there is a lot of truth in it. For me, it raises the question, what are we doing on Sunday morning? Is it an event aimed at encouraging a mystical experience? Are we trying to get an emotional response? change the way people live their lives? increase their knowledge? Is it a cultic event where we re-enact rituals? a private communion between individuals and God? And finally is there something that only can happen in this communal gathering or is it just an appendage to a private spiritual life? What exactly are we doing and what is the role of the pastor/leader in planning and facilitating that time together?

What do you think?


Toni Ertl said...

I don't know if Prothero has a particular 'angle' on this, or is just trying to work through some thoughts.

What seems more likely to me is that where there is a lack in some way or another then that area becomes the point of focus for growth and development. So historically speaking the church had become all about knowledge and teaching: a new movement appeared that focussed on the heart. One could parallel it with the history many of can remember, where church was an intellectual exercise, and has been transformed into an emotional and personal experience.

Both sides have reveled in their excesses, neither having struck a healthy balance. For those who are aware, I'd see a call to feed the mind and excite the heart. I don't want to be taught by those who know nothing, and I don't want to be lead in worship by those whose hearts are dry. But I also don't want clever ideas and carefully rafted shows to entertain.

But what do I know about meeting God in church?

roy said...

Prothero doesn't care about the shape of worship services or even faith in general. His concern is about religious literacy and at that point in the book is talking about the decline of religious literacy in the US. His argument is that the move from a religion based around knowledge to one based in feelings, people's knowledge about their own faith declined significantly.
It hooked me as my post on the 8th spoke about constructing an experience which is clearly a heart based religion rather than head based.

Michael Mahoney said...

In answer to your last paragraph, I think we try to do all of the above, to one degree or another. How much depends on the church's philosophical/theological ideals; a liturgical church will look more toward the mystical, those of us of a pentecostal bend will look for a move of the Spirit kind of thing, and sadly, some will aim for a multi-media lollapalooza guaranteed to fill their 3000 seats.

Jesus looked to connect with people's hearts more than their heads - why shouldn't we? Education, like all things, is fine in moderation - and I consider myself fairly well-educated. I know some amazing preachers/pastors/evangelists who barely graduated high school, and some PhDiv types who couldn't get a nun to go to church on Easter.

As pastors, I think we have a higher calling to be aware and educated about our "religion," but in order to shape our message and ministry, not simply to pass on knowledge. Rhetoric about Armenianism or Clavanism is fine, but I'd rather teach about a heart transformed by Christ.

Ron Krumpos said...

Orthodox, institutional religions are quite different, but their mystics have much in common. A quote from the chapter "Mystic Viewpoints" in my e-book at on comparative mysticism:

Ritual and Symbols. The inner meanings of the scriptures, the spiritual teachings of the prophets and those personal searchings which can lead to divine union were often given lesser importance than outward rituals, symbolism and ceremony in many institutional religions. Observances, reading scriptures, prescribed acts, and following orthodox beliefs cannot replace your personal dedication, contemplation, activities, and direct experience. Preaching is too seldom teaching. For true mystics, every day is a holy day. Divine revelation is here and now, not limited to their sacred scriptures.

Conflicts in Conventional Religion. "What’s in a Word?" outlined some primary differences between religions and within each faith. The many divisions in large religions disagreed, sometimes bitterly. The succession of authority, interpretations of scriptures, doctrines, organization, terminology, and other disputes have often caused resentment. The customs, worship, practices, and behavior within the mainstream of religions frequently conflicted. Many leaders of any religion had only united when confronted by someone outside their faith, or by agnostics or atheists. Few mystics have believed divine oneness is exclusive to their religion or is restricted to any people.

Note: This is just a consensus to indicate some differences between the approaches of mystics and that of their institutional religion. These statements do not represent all schools of mysticism or every division of faith. Whether mystical experiences vary in their cultural context, or are similar for all true mystics, is less important than that they transform each one’s sense of being to a transpersonal outlook on all life.