Ecclesial Worship as a Way Forward in the Current Crisis
When the months-long lockdown in Sri Lanka was lifted, a widely held anticipation was betrayed: that Christians and religious seekers in large scores will attend church at a rate like never before. After all, it is expected that when tragedy and disaster strike, human beings grasp for any strand of hope, usually in the form of religious devotion. It was assumed that the loneliness, fear and dereliction stirred up during the lockdown would bring a new-found eagerness and desire for community life and piety. However, in most instances, this was not the case. Many observed that their church attendance had, quite frankly, stayed the same or even declined.
Many reasons can be given for this ranging from the appeal of the digital platform that favours convenience over hassle to the fear attached with private gathering and close proximity in the current crisis. Since the pandemic is far from over, some may even hold out hope for a revival in the future staked on the religious feelings usually evoked by a crisis.
Here, I hope to explore how this anticipation can prove to be disappointing or even antithetical to the normative nature of the Holy Spirit’s work in the church. Demanding a certain religious response using manipulative strategies of spiritual coercion can create short-lived spiritual vigour and depreciate the enduring and formative act of liturgical worship. I suggest that an ecclesial approach allows the Holy Spirit to address apathy and the liturgy to speak to all.
Conditions, Compensations and Contingencies
Following the 9/11 attacks that shook the American spirit to its very core and became a defining moment in the 21st century, a noticeable phenomenon occurred. Quite apart from global solidarity with America against terrorism, there was a spike in church attendance. Even today, many look back at the attacks as having a positive effect on the religious and spiritual lives of Americans. However, Mark Chaves, a Duke professor of sociology, religious studies, and divinity, observes: “People thought this type of crisis of national significance would lead people to be more religious, and it did,” he says. “But it was very short-lived. There was a blip in church attendance and then it went back to normal.”
This quick rise and fall in religious involvement following a tragedy are not unique to the 9/11 attacks. Jeremy E. Uecker observes from a sociological perspective that “an individual’s response to a tragic event may vary by that individual’s social location, personal resources, and religious characteristics.” For instance, in the church that I am currently a pastor, a certain young person (let’s call him John) has become a regular attendee in the last few months. His exuberance and desire for participation in the life of the community has been inspiring if not challenging to the regular attendees. However, before one attempts at an over spiritualized evaluation of John, it must be noted that he suffers from severe depression and loneliness. Prior to the lockdown, John attended a church where he felt unmoved and only remained a member due to the insistence of his mother. That church community did not seek to heal his inner wounds or give John the sense of belonging he needed. In joining our community, John found precisely that.
Uecker notes that “Religion may serve as a compensatory coping device for young adults who are lacking other means of social support; thus, those who are not in a marital or cohabiting union, those who have suboptimal relationships with their parents, and those who have no friends to support them (or to whom they can offer their support) may be more likely to turn to religion as a provider of either social support (which is not likely given the individualistic nature of young adult religion) or the support of a ‘divine other.’” He believes that “young adults who feel alone, depressed, or are otherwise psychologically distressed may also be more likely to turn to religion and spirituality for support in the face of adversity.” While Uecker’s analysis does not allow for the providential working of the Holy Spirit in drawing an individual into a community of healing and security, it would still be a mistake to assume that John’s vitality in the church post-lockdown is devoid of any sociological and psychological reasons.
That is to say that there are factors beyond the spiritual realm that can determine the response of an individual to tragic events. Often within the charismatic circles in which I work, ecstatic and exuberant reactions are measurements by which one’s Christian commitment is legitimized. “Disasters can be cast as ‘the will of a God who works in mysterious ways’ or as the result of human ‘sinfulness,’ among myriad other possible explanations.” For these communities, the current crisis must and should evoke an apocalyptic urgency that in turn drives a high involvement and participation in church life and mission.
N. T. Wright, during the early stages of the pandemic, cautioned Christians about this very thing in his article for the Times. He writes, “Rationalists (including Christian rationalists) want explanations; Romantics (including Christian romantics) want to be given a sigh of relief.” Therefore, it is not surprising when Christian leaders and preachers rush to predictions about the divine reasons for the pandemic or speculate the outcomes for those who do not respond according to the set template. Wright, rightly points out that frequently Christians succumb to meaning-making about things that are too wonderful to human conception or outside God’s revelation. The Psalmist resonates,
“My heart is not proud, LORD, my eyes are not haughty; I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me. But I have calmed and quieted myself, I am like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child I am content. (Psalms 131:1–2)
Another observation, however, is that with the rising individualism within Protestant expressions of the faith, people are no longer subscribing to the demands and legitimizing requirements of their respective communities. Instead, church for them, as in the case before the Covid crisis, is only a compensatory coping device used selectively. Therefore, they do not feel the need to manufacture the kind of responses that would give a spiritual meaning to the crisis beyond that which already satisfies their current lifestyle. Accountability in church attendance or participation is little to none in these quarters.
A Liturgical Community: A Pastoral Word
What can we make of all of this? Chaves concludes in his analysis of the 9/11 event that,
religious behavior isn’t usually affected in the long term by single events… Rather, religious practice in a society tends to change slowly over a long period of time, often owing to demographic changes. For example, changes to family structure — like people marrying later, or not at all, or choosing not to have children — have led to changes in church attendance and other sorts of religious involvement.
If this is true, the only realistic expectation of the aftermath of the Covid crisis in terms of piety and long-lasting religious fervour is no real drastic change at all. As forgetful creatures who immediately resorted to careless public activity that resulted in a second spreading of the virus post-lockdown, human beings are prone to adjust, adapt, and return to some form of routine.
As a pastor, on the one hand, there are times of frustration and disappointment in this pandemic, especially when those you care for are either indifferent or uninterested in changing their ways. Therein lies a temptation to leverage the crisis to force the changes you want to see either by fear-mongering or imposing guilt and shame. On the other hand, being the evangelical pragmatist I am, there exists a naive anticipation of a future “harvest” that might somehow explain away the current distress. In both instances, there is a subtle disregard to the formative and God-ordained act of ecclesial worship.
The pastor who labours week-in and week-out in preaching the Word and administering the Sacraments does not do so in vain. The diverse community that comes together to “stir up one another to love and good works” and “encouraging one another — and all the more as [they] see the Day approaching” — do not do so in vain. Ecclesial worship embodied and expressed as “liturgy,” shapes and moulds the Christian in conditions set by the Triune God. The liturgy consisting of aural-tactile (Word and Sacrament) mediums communicates the truth of who God is and what the world is without manipulation or coercion.
Sudden bursts of spirituality and revivals have an important place in the Christian tradition too; However, revivalism is not without stains of spiritual manipulation and ecclesial ramifications that are often not discussed. In other words, the desire for revival following a tragic event must always be curated by New-Testament cautions against hypocrisy, false humility and impure religion.
The Spirit who pervades all activity, including the mundane and the radical, that Uecker and Chaves may reduce to an easily explainable religious phenomenon, is sovereign and no doubt working in the hearts of men and women in this situation. However, the most convincing and consistent manner in which God transforms, renews, and reforms is within the setting of a worshipping and liturgical community. In this setting, the responses to the current crisis may be delayed and varied, some highly charged and others less energetic. Nevertheless, the God who comes to his people in the Word and the Sacrament provides hope and realigns worldviews and heart-dispositions in ways that transcend the contingent nature of human crises. I leave you with Paul’s words:
Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God (2 Corinthians 4:1–2).
 Mark Chaves, “After 9/11, a Short-Lived Rush to Church,” accessed October 12, 2020, https://today.duke.edu/2016/08/after-911-short-lived-rush-church.
 Jeremy E. Uecker, “Religious and Spiritual Responses to 9/11: Evidence from the Add Health Study*,” Sociological Spectrum : The Official Journal of the Mid-South Sociological Association 28, no. 5 (2008): 4, https://doi.org/10.1080/02732170802206047.
 Ibid., 5.
 Ibid., 3.
 N. T. Wright, “Christianity Offers No Answers About the Coronavirus.”
 Chaves, “After 9/11, a Short-Lived Rush to Church.”