Beyond Ritual – a Life of Prayer and Action

In March 1943, the Gestapo arrested and imprisoned Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a young Lutheran theologian and pastor, because documents linked him to subversive activities against the Reich. Two years later, just a few days before the end of the war in Europe, he was hanged at the Flossenbürg concentration camp.

A year before his execution, as he sat alone inside cell 92 in Berlin’s Tegel prison, Bonhoeffer reflected on the state of the church to which he had devoted his adult life. In a letter to his close friend Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer wrote about the seeming ineffectiveness of Christianity—and religion in general—in contemporary life.

We are moving towards a completely religionless time; people as they are now simply cannot be religious anymore. Even those who honestly describe themselves as ‘religious’ do not in the least act up to it, and so they presumably mean something quite different by ‘religious’…

And if therefore man becomes radically religionless—and I think that is already more or less the case (else, how is it, for example, that this war, in contrast to all previous ones, is not calling forth any ‘religious’ reaction?)—what does that mean for ‘Christianity’?1

In light of the depravity of the Nazi state and the horrific violence of the Second World War, perpetrated by religious people on all sides, the church had proven to be either incapable or unwilling to deal with the evils of the modern world. For many, the religious practices of Christianity had become personal and private, and were largely divorced from social ethics and politics. The mainstream churches in the so-called “Christian nations” proved to have no prophetic voice.

Bonhoeffer was disturbed that religious people were not speaking out and their social and political struggles were conducted without drawing on their faith—or more likely, that their faith had become so disjointed from social and political conditions that they saw no connection. If religious institutions in every nation were willingly transformed into servants and chaplains of their respective states, and if Christians were not raising a prophetic voice for peace and justice, Bonhoeffer asked if there was some other way that one could be a Christian in a world of continual injustice, suffering, and violence.

Are there religionless Christians? If religion is only a garment of Christianity—and even this garment has looked very different at different times—then what is a religionless Christianity?2

Bonhoeffer was struggling with what remains when the typical traits of a religion—clergy, religious institutions, sacred rites, orthodox beliefs, and a rigid moral code—are eliminated. How would that redefine Christianity and what would become of the church as a result?

Bonhoeffer believed that in the future a religionless Christianity—stripped of its religious garments—would be limited to two things: prayer and action.3 He believed that through these two acts Christians would learn to see the world from a new perspective, with the eyes of those at the bottom of society—the people that Matthew called “the least of these.” For Bonhoeffer, prayer—especially intercessory prayer—becomes important because it creates a powerful sense of empathy and solidarity with the people one brings before God. This, in turn, motivates one to engage in “righteous” action—the seeking of justice in human society.

Seventy years later, we are witnessing the rapid decline of Christianity in the Global North. Postmodern people seem to be heading away from traditional ‘church Christianity’ to some new mode of being a Christian in the world—Christianity developing outside of the walls of a church building. The magnificent cathedrals of Europe lie empty, or have been transformed into concert halls and museums. In the United States, with each succeeding generation, participation in churches and synagogues continues to decline. It is a time of great uncertainty for many Christians, and especially for congregations. Will the future of the Christian faith bear some semblance to today’s institutional church, or will it be found outside the walls of the sanctuaries in some uniquely new manifestation? Must Christianity divest its religious garments in order to embrace an increasingly nonreligious secular world? No one can accurately predict what will happen as the decline of the institution continues. However—if as Bonhoeffer foresaw—prayer and righteous action will be the only clear signs of a different kind of Christianity without religion, what does that mean to the future of the church’s ancient rites and rituals? Can we be faithful to God without corporate worship?

In his letter to the Christians at Rome, the Apostle Paul suggested that God wants something entirely different from us—an alternative kind of worship: an ethic of compassion, a life of service to others, and the pursuit of peace and justice. For Paul, these acts represent the only form of worship that a God of love deems good, acceptable, and perfect.

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.4

Here is how Eugene Peterson paraphrases these two verses:

So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You will be changed from the inside out.5

In an unpublished essay,6 Dr. Lesly Massey, a Disciple of Christ pastor in Dallas, Texas, quoted Ernst Käsemann, an eminent Lutheran theologian who—like Bonhoeffer—was part of the Confessing Church in Germany. Käsemann saw in Romans 12:1-2 an unequivocal summary of Paul’s view of worship as a follower of Jesus.

Christian worship does not consist of what is practiced at sacred sites, at sacred times, and with sacred acts. It is the offering of bodily existence in the otherwise profane sphere, as something constantly demanded. This takes place in daily life, whereby every Christian is simultaneously sacrifice and priest.7

Massey further commented on Käsemann’s analysis:

In other words, Paul does not define worship in terms of rituals or ceremonies performed by Christians when assembled together, and therefore segregated from routine life. On the contrary, true worship is offered through the believer’s daily life by means of a noble ethos practiced openly in the world. God’s will is accomplished through that which is seemingly profane, and with such God is well pleased… 8

In a sense, Romans 12:1 illustrates Paul’s inclination to decentralize religion, specifically the Christian’s life of service to God, removing the holy presence from a stone temple and placing it within each believer, and within all believers as a community of faith and the true temple of God…9

True worship, therefore, amounts to an approach to mundane activities that gives evidence of an inner conversion and transformation by the living presence of Christ. This to Paul was the appropriate response to divine grace, and the only sensible, beneficial, and proper means of honoring God. In order to “worship” God one must offer a “service to God.” The interests of God, the will of God, are not “served” by rituals, symbols, gestures, ceremonies, or platitudes. Paul was convinced, from his understanding of the teaching of Jesus, that God cannot be patronized by human lip-service.10 Rather, God is served by noble and exemplary living motives, attitudes, perspectives, choices, and actions that demonstrate divine love and goodness in the world.

Church’ Christianity is dying. Congregations are aging and younger people are leaving. Newer generations may never enter the doors of a church except for weddings and funerals. The old mission of the church—inviting people into fellowship for the forgiveness of sins and the assurance of a passage to heaven—no longer seems to be working. It is hard to predict what form Christianity might take in years to come. However, if Bonhoeffer was right, the future may lie with those religionless Christians who seek justice, practice peacemaking, and engage in compassionate service outside the walls of the local congregation. Our good, acceptable, and perfect worship takes place in the midst of the world where people are hurting—in the very arena where Jesus lived, worked, and died, and toward which he calls us to follow.


1 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, (New York: Macmillan, 1972), 279-280.

2 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, 280.

3 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, 300.

4 Romans 12:1-2

5 Romans 12:1-2, Eugene Patterson, The Message: The New Testament, Psalms and Proverbs (1993)

6 Lesly F. Massey, “Perspectives on Christian Worship In Light of Romans 12:1” (2005)

7 Ernst Käsemann, Commentary on Romans, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, translator. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980) 324-329.

8 Lesly Massey, “Perspectives on Christian Worship”

9 1 Corinthians 3:16—Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?; and 1 Corinthians 6:19—Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own?

10 Mark 7:6-7—[Jesus] said to them, ‘Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
“This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.”


Review & Commentary

  • Denny Hacker

    Kurt, In NC attendance is still the question but it is not mine. I think Phyllis Tickle’s point that we now are in the age of the spirit empowers . Actually she really described the way I have felt for decades. I just feel less lonely now. Your essay of prayer and action is connecting with me IF all prayer is for others not for me. Denny

  • Terry Daly

    Thank you for sharing, Kurt. While I appreciate your comments on Bonhoeffer’s writings, I would add a note. While prayer and commitment to social needs are central to the gospel, Bonhoeffer does not recommend prayer only in a prison or closet. See in “Life Together” how he ties in the need for community which is also fundamental to the gospel. (That’s why he was getting his letters smuggled out of prison.) Unfortunately we are all too human, and when we get together for prayer, ritual will emerge. That’s true for the “Church of What’s Happening Now” as it is for any traditional church. I would add to your emphasis Bonhoeffer’s “religionless Christianity” would not exclude community, but would be on guard against the dangers of ritual becoming the doughnut and not the hole.

    • Terry – Community is the big question. You are right that Bonhoeffer deeply valued it. Christianity requires some form of community for propagation and sustenance. I don’t see it surviving without it. Today, it is difficult for us to imagine a Christian community without a building, clergy, paid staff, and programming. Yet those features were absent in the early Jesus movement and the house churches founded by Paul. Certainly, most of us understand that the church and the kingdom of God are not synonyms. The church exists to proclaim the kingdom. So what kind of community will we shape in the future as the current structure of ‘church Christianity’ declines? Bonhoeffer thought that a new language would emerge to speak of Christianity in a secular world. My book proposes that we think of the kingdom of God as ‘a conspiracy of love’ in the world supported by ‘communities of conspiracy.’ I once took part in a small group known as the Caring Community. We met weekly in the evening for about two hours. We used a liturgical structure without a written liturgy. We sang no hymns and prayed no corporate prayers. The discussion of the appointed gospel lesson was facilitated by lay people, who rotated weekly. Our offering was a personal commitment to engage in some action based on each individual’s response to the gospel. Our confession the next week was how we did regarding that action. We passed the peace and shared bread and wine. In Latin America, lay-led base Christian communities do much the same thing, although their responsive action is often corporate rather than personal. Perhaps these are models of communities of conspiracy in a ‘religionless’ Christianity.

  • Here is what is good and desirable in life: to seek justice, to embrace compassion, and to live with humility, simplicity, and sincerity. (Micah 6:8)