Chapter 5: Praying in Church

Praying Today: Practical Thoughts on Prayer
by Norman Pittenger

Chapter 5: Praying in Church

No man lives entirely of and unto himself. He belongs to human society; he is basically a "social being," as the ancient Greek thinker Aristotle put it. This is as true of man in his religious life as in the other areas of his existence. That is why public prayer, or prayer in church (as we who are Christians would put it), is so important for him.

Unquestionably there is a profound sense in which each man’s religion is his own, of course. Until and unless faith is deeply personalized and religious practice an equally personal matter, both will be largely superficial and conventional. This is why unthinking acceptance of membership in a religious group can be dangerous; it can produce -- although membership as such need not produce -- large numbers of people who give nominal assent yet never really enter into the life of the group in any genuine depth. On the other hand, a purely individualistic religion can be equally dangerous, as a celebrated remark by the British economist R. H. Tawney indicates. Tawney said that the man who "seeks God apart from his brethren is likely not to find God, but rather the devil, whose face will bear a surprising resemblance to his own" That is, unless we broaden our perspective and correct our idiosyncrasies by sharing with our human brethren, we are in peril of conceiving God simply as ourselves writ large, with all our peculiarities, self-centeredness, and imperfection.

Sometimes defenders of entirely individualistic religion quote a sentence from Whitehead in Religion in the Making: "Religion is what a man does with his solitariness." On the other hand, defenders of the social nature of religion assume that because Whitehead said this he must have been mistaken in his understanding of what religion is. Thus he is attacked from both sides; but both attacks are in error since they fail to read that sentence, and one or two similar ones, in their proper context. The point of his remark is in fact similar to our own comment above. A religion that is never truly made personal, speaking to the inner depths of man’s being, will be superficial or conventional and will have no cutting edge. Personal acceptance, personal faith, and personal responsibility are essential; and this is what is mean by the "solitariness" in which a man faces God, the world, and himself with utter honesty and tries to come to terms with all three. At the same time Whitehead saw, and said in that very book, that the "topic" of religion is the individual in the community.

Each of us knows his "solitariness" well enough. Matthew Arnold spoke of the "unplumbed, salt, estranging sea" that divides us even from those we know and love best. Our human need is not to deny this distinction of persons but to find ways in which our social nature can find healthy expression. Nobody is content to live in utter isolation from others, even if this were possible; we want our fellow men, to be united with them in a relationship that preserves distinctions but overcomes separation. And in our religion, we have a social reality that is to be personally appropriated. This is because of the sort of world in which we live, one where everything is profoundly interrelated, as we have already insisted. The world is not a great heap of individuals closed in on themselves; it is a shared enterprise in which each is open to others.

And that truth about the world rests on the nature of God himself. The history of religion is the story of the purification of concepts of God, from barbaric notions to a picture of him as good, loving, and caring. God is social, too, in that he shares with others who are his creatures; he is intimately related with them, rejoicing in their happiness and suffering with them in their anguish. He not only gives to them; he is also ready to receive from them. Otherwise the creation would be pointless.

Now, specifically Christian faith confirms and validates all this. In that faith God is affirmed to be Love; and by its very definition love means relationships, influencing and being influenced, affecting and being affected, or in a word, sharing. God is always God, but he is not to be thought of as separated from his creatures, however distinct from them he must be; on the contrary, his Godhead is declared precisely in his active love in the world. Among the purposes for the coming of Christ, one was to make this divine sharing a vivid and wonderfully real matter for God’s children.

Like everything else, the Christian community of faith is a living social process that moves down the centuries, handing on its faith from generation to generation. Its life is communitarian, as we might put it. In another book (Life in Christ, Eerdmans, 1972) I sought to make this clear and to show how being a Christian is being "in Christ" and hence being with the brethren "in Love" as well as "in love": first, Love with a capital "L" because it is life with God in Christ; then, love with a small "l" because it is life with our fellow-Christians and in principle at least with all men everywhere.

If this be true, then public worship is an elementary duty for all who profess the Christian name. So by a long route we have arrived at the subject of this chapter. It was helpful to take that long route, however, since walking it will have demonstrated that church worship is no incidental matter for the Christian, but rather is grounded in his very human nature itself as well as in his distinctively Christian faith.

Those who talk as if public worship were just an addendum, to be engaged in when we happen to feel like it, have seriously misunderstood themselves and also mistaken the nature of the Christian enterprise. For the truth is that Christianity is incurably a "liturgical" as well as a personal affair.

The word "liturgy" is the ancient term to describe public worship of any sort, although sometimes its meaning has been restricted to the Lord’s Supper. Such a restriction is an error, however; the Greek word from which "liturgy" comes is defined in the lexicon as meaning "a public work" -- and all corporate worship is such a public work. Unquestionably the Holy Communion is, or ought to be, central to Christian worship; so it has been historically, even if (for example) the intention of the great Reformers, Martin Luther and John Calvin, that it should be celebrated each Lord’s Day has been observed by many only in the breach. The next chapter will be devoted to a discussion of that sacramental observance as a focus for Christian public praying. In this chapter we are concerned with the significance of all public worship as such and with why praying in church should be part of the normal Christian discipline of life.

The Christian who "goes to church," as the phrase has it, is doing this as a human being like anyone else. That is to say, he goes as a body-mind complex, not just as a "spiritual being." What goes on in his body affects what goes on in his mind; and vice versa. Further, he goes as one who is intimately related to his fellows as a social being; with those others he is "knit together in a bundle of life," as the Old Testament tells us. He is also in relationship to the world of nature, from which he has been produced through the purpose and act of God; he is not a stranger in the natural order, but genuinely a part of it, although as human he is also distinct from it. Finally, like all men he is related to God himself, the supreme creative Lover who is present throughout the creation.

Obviously John Jones and Mary Smith, as they go to church on a Sunday morning, are not likely to be vividly conscious of all this. Yet all this is true of them. They are more likely to be aware of the drive in them to share in fellowship with others, for probably they are married, have children, have friends and neighbors, and want to be associated with all these in varying degrees of intimacy. The physiological-psychological basis for this urge to share in such fellowship is their human sexual nature, although this does not suggest that actual sexual contacts are involved. But we need to recognize this pervasive sexuality in man, as we have argued earlier and shall state again; nor need we be ashamed of the fact.

When a Christian goes to church, then, he goes bringing with him all that he is as a man, as well as all that he is as a Christian. And the public worship of the Church, in which he is to take part, must somehow be relevant to all these aspects of human existence. When John Jones is in church, his mind is there so that he can understand what is going on. His senses are there so that he will feel, see, hear, touch. His body is there, as he sits or stands or kneels. His sexuality is there, as he learns to care for and respond to his brethren in Christian love. His social relationships are there, since he is with other men and women. His relationship to the natural order is there, because he is the product of it and carries it with him; his spirit, or capacity for openness to God as well as to men, is there too. The public worship of God is a supreme instance of the whole man bringing his whole personality into the open, in an intentional and willed identification with the God whom he comes to worship. When we forget this and focus attention on but one aspect -- perhaps on the spiritual side alone -- we deny our total God-given nature as men. No wonder that worship can then seem something apart from life, an occasional exercise of extrication from our human situation. But that ought never to be the case.

It is necessary, therefore, that what goes on in church worship should appeal to the whole man and should include the whole man. It should express his wholeness, since it is the Christian vocation to offer one’s totality to God, as did Christ himself. It should also impress him in his wholeness, since as we all know it is through the impact upon us of words, actions, sensed or felt realities, that we come to understand and appreciate. One reason for the unattractiveness of church worship in so many places and on so many occasions is that this appeal to and expression of human wholeness has been neglected or forgotten. The public worship of God ought not to be just sermon, important as that is; if only the sermon counts, we might as well be in a lecture hall. The setting of the sermon in the context of the total act of worship is what gives the sermon its peculiar significance. It is then recognized and accepted as the proclamation of the gospel of Christ to the people of Christ, gathered to bring all of themselves into responsive acceptance of what God has done for them in the Lord and Savior whom they would adore and follow.

This is why certain postures -- sitting, standing, kneeling -- have their place. It also explains why we have prayers said by minister and people, hymns that are sung, movement from place to place in the church building for particular purposes, like the taking of the collection, or other necessary actions. It tells us why we have flowers on the Lord’s Table or near the pulpit and why in many churches those who minister -- both the ordained leader and the choir, for example -- may wear a distinctive garb. In all these ways, a setting is provided that both expresses and impresses -- and that is necessary for more than aesthetic motives. Beauty is of great importance in worship as elsewhere in life; in church services, these things have a point that includes but goes beyond sheer beauty, since they have as their principal reason the provision of a context in which the worshippers as whole men and women are moved to pray, to adore God, to listen to his Word, to confess their sin, to receive assurance of his forgiveness, and to be strengthened for discipleship.

There is no excuse for the drabness so often found in church services. It is possible to worship God anywhere; and even the ugliest building and the dullest sermon, the most sentimental or cheap music, the sheer boredom that may accompany the rest of the service, need not block our public approach to the throne of mercy. But it is shameful when lack of imagination, failure of insight, and narrowness of mind produce such a parody of what might well be the most glorious of human occasions of meeting: the worship of God the "altogether lovely" (as an old phrase has it) and the altogether loving One.

Furthermore, we need to do everything in our power to make our praying together in church an occasion in which genuine Christianity is visibly placarded before those who are present. Sometimes the service suggests a God who is like an oriental monarch demanding that his subjects cringe in fear before him; more often, at least in many American churches, it suggests a God who is foolishly sentimental and entirely undemanding in his loving self-disclosure to men. In either case, the worship is less than Christian. In the former sort, the necessity for awe and reverence has been turned into groveling in fear and feeling a hatred of self, neither of which is appropriate when we are intentionally thinking of our austere but loving God who does not want us to hate our true selves (although we ought to hate our lower sinful selves) but to let them be open to him and his grace. In the latter sort, the recognition of God’s loving mercy has been turned into cheap "easiness" in his presence; then God is a "soft" God, the sternness of whose loving requirements and the sinfulness of man before him having been forgotten. For my own part, I believe that the first condition for such a revision of our services of worship as shall make them fully Christian is theological; by this I mean that only when our doctrine of God is soundly Christian will these services be appropriate to the worship of the community that finds its center in Jesus Christ, who revealed God as "pure, unbounded Love" but who also revealed that this Love is not soft or sentimental -- the fact of Calvary makes that truth sufficiently plain.

Some of our comments have been highly critical of public worship as frequently found. But nonetheless, attendance at that worship is both a duty and a privilege for everyone who calls himself a Christian. We can even suggest that such attendance, loyal and devout yet critical of inadequacy, may be a way in which public worship will be improved in its quality and made more worthy of the God whom we worship.

Attendance is a duty, we have said. It is a duty because it is the necessary complement of personal prayer, preventing our praying from becoming idiosyncratic and individualistic. The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews admonished his readers "not to forsake the assembling of yourselves together." He saw clearly that Christianity, like its ancestor Judaism, was in fact social in nature; he also saw, one may assume, although he did not say, that because Christians like everybody else are social beings, they need to be with their brethren in the faith -- and more, it is their responsibility to be with them. A duty, but also a privilege -- and a privilege because it enables each to share with all, to give to and receive from the fellowship, to make public profession of and witness to the faith that is ours and to encourage others to do so by sharing in a common activity.

Public worship in church has another significant value. By ourselves, we are quite likely to stress, both in our praying and in our believing and action, those particular aspects of Christian faith and practice that have their special appeal to us as individuals. We need to have these supplemented by other aspects that are not so obviously appealing to us. Public worship does this. In it we are drawn with our brethren along a path that opens to us new vistas and new points of interest. The following of what sometimes is called "the Christian year" is an example. Christmas and the season of preparation that precedes it, the time of special penitence during Lent, Holy Week and above all Good Friday, Easter Day, the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost: here is a regular round of observance that provides variety in such churches as observe it -- and they are increasing in number, in all denominations. But above all, here is entrance into the "large room" of traditional Christian faith, delivering us from unhealthy confinement to personal preference and enlarging our awareness of the richness of the Christian reality to which we belong.

The use of ancient prayers in public worship unites us with our ancestors in the Christian way; modern prayers bring us into contact with the contemporary world and its needs, as well as with our brethren across the world in our own day. The varied lessons read in church from Old and New Testaments disclose the many different aspects of truth about God and man. Psalms give us a share in what has been styled "the hymnbook that Jesus himself used." Hymns and canticles of more recent composition, but also the old ones that have come down to us from our Christian past, enable us to sing the praises of God along with those who have gone before us, while they unite us with others present at worship in a common act of adoration or petition or confession. And the sermon -- which we may hope will be no series of moral platitudes or pious phrases, but a real proclamation of the gospel of God in Christ -- can be for us, as it is meant always to be, the very Word of God brought to bear upon our human lives.

Above all, public worship is the experience of sharing with our fellow-Christians in an action that is distinctively Christian and which, by our very presence there, is to become (like all prayer) an intentional, attentive, and conscious openness to the presence and action of God himself. Thus we are delivered from loneliness as Christian believers. We know ourselves to be part of "a great company which no man can number," for in such worship we enter with full awareness into "the communion of saints" and know ourselves to be "members of the blessed company of all faithful people." This is an enormous encouragement for us modern Christians, perhaps more for us than for our ancestors in faith since today Christian profession is not simply taken for granted in the community and we can feel very much alone in making that profession. "The world is too much with us"; we are ever in danger of losing our way or finding our faith dim. Being with other Christians in the public worship of God strengthens us, confirms us in faith, and sends us out to our daily tasks with renewed determination "to continue Christ’s faithful soldiers and servants unto our life’s end."

One additional comment may be made in this connection. Those who are with us in church may not be the ones with whom normally we should wish to find ourselves. And that is all to the good. Participation in such worship has the advantage of bringing us, Sunday by Sunday, into contact with "all sorts and conditions of men"; and we can learn in this way that God is "no respecter of persons" but welcomes all who turn to him, however unattractive or uninteresting or disagreeable they may seem to us to be. If God is willing to accept them, we can learn to accept them too. "Not many wise, not many noble" -- just ordinary people, as doubtless they on their part think us to be. And all of them are our brethren, for whom we are to care and in whose presence we are to rejoice.

These days church attendance has fallen off a great deal. This may seem unfortunate, but it has one good aspect. Most of those who now "go to church" do so because they are convinced that Christian faith is true and important, or at least that it may have "something" to say and give to them. People do not come nowadays, so much as was once the case, simply in order to be "respectable"; indeed, in many places it is perfectly possible to be thus "respectable," to be good, decent citizens, without ever darkening the doors of a church.

We should not condemn people who at an earlier period went to church because that was what everybody did. Churchgoing is not likely to hurt anybody! The real question is what happens to them when they are there. But granted this, the ordinary believing Christian will find today that those who are with him in church will be, like him, concerned to grow in faith, to deepen their relationship with God, and to learn from public prayer ways in which their devotion, in private prayer and otherwise, may be given more reality. In such a situation, the duty and privilege of church worship is clear enough. Our Christian brethren need us; we need them.

In this chapter we have urged that praying in church is no meaningless or incidental activity but is tied in with the whole of our Christian profession and our common humanity. It has to do with the whole man. "It is good for the brethren to dwell together in unity," the Psalm tells us. Above all, it is good and necessary for Christian people to pray together, as well as to pray privately, to come together regularly and faithfully in order to receive grace for daily living, to praise God, to thank him, to intercede before him, and to find in him their truest "joy and salvation."