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The human race seems to need rituals.


Question & Answer

Q: By Edna
The human race seems to need rituals. Christmas, Easter, Baptisms and Eucharist/Communion are times and events that attract the most people to the church and corporate worship. Yet these same rituals are the ones where the theistic God is most evident and reinforced. How can we address this paradox?
A: By Rev. Gretta Vosper
Thank you for this important question, Edna.

You are quite right about our need for rituals. And it’s not just humans who need them. Probably since the first animal looked for a mate, rituals have been part of the procreative urge of most, if not all, living things. Male Bower birds, for example, build the most elaborate nests and adorn them with collected chips of a chosen color – blue, orange, yellow, … – in the hopes that a female will be enchanted by the bling. One usually is and life goes merrily on. I must admit to having wondered if the male, in the absence of an interested female, would begin to renovate, switching out his first choice of color for another… So much to learn in this world of ours!

Our days are full of blandly ordinary rituals. When we get up and brush our teeth, we put our toothpaste back in the same place. We hang our clothes up (or not), and some of those of us who do face all the hangers one way. We listen to a particular radio or online music feed. We have our favorite blend of coffee, our Saturday morning routines, and a routine around who sits where at the table.

There are more significant and poignant things that mark our days, too. Some men tie the same knot in their tie every morning because it reminds them of their dad looping the ends with practiced ease. Two of my friends say “D.D.” to one another when they say goodbye; it stands for “Don’t Die.” When Scott heads back down to his study at night, I say, “See you in the morning,” quoting the words my mom said to me every night of my childhood. This year, I realized that I hadn’t asked her friend for the plum pudding recipe she’d made for our family each Christmas. Had I done so, that would have become another ritual.

But if your toothpaste wasn’t where you’d left it in the morning, the radio station had changed its format to something you seriously dislike, or a sibling told you that you were wrong about what your mom said at night, you’d probably be a bit disoriented. Maybe upset. Perhaps even angry. It’s hard to break with rituals, whether they are mundane or hold a deeper meaning.

Not long ago, a large evangelical church near where I live put on its sign at Easter, “See you at Christmas!” It was a delicious jab at the Christmas & Easter (C & E) crowd that spills through the doors for traditional seasonal services but doesn’t have a regular “ritual” of church. Most churches take a different approach to the C & E crowd, trying to bring them in with live animals and then sign them up on a mailing list while they’re in the building. This church had managed to get beyond that unfulfilling and demoralizing effort.

They probably had their service right, though. Because the C & E services of a traditionally conservative church share the exactly same story every Easter and every Christmas. To use the personal analogy, they put the toothpaste right where people expect to find it, and because they do, people go away happy and primed to return for the next big seasonal message.

Many years ago, I knew a family that had been active at West Hill for some time but who had fallen away in their attendance when their kids became teenagers and commitments shifted. They hadn’t been around to engage in the conversations that resulted in a shift in our services that resulted in theologically non-exclusive services. The family did show up, however, on Christmas Eve only to find that we no longer did Christmas as we had in the past. Shortly after, they removed their membership.

You see, even though no one in that family believed in the Christmas story, they wanted it to be there for them on Christmas Eve. They wanted to feel the magic of a story that is millennia old. West Hill had changed; our Christmas Eve services had changed. So what we provided people who didn’t know why we’d changed things came to join us was not a magical feeling. It was disappointment.

Learning by hemorrhage (the reality that organizations on the bleeding edge experience – you try something and find, once you’ve tried it, that you’re bleeding out), that was our last Christmas Eve service. For our congregation, struggling with the dissonance of traditional liturgies and music at Christmas and Easter was very important. It made no sense for us to provide a service for those who came but once or twice a year and not present something meaningful for our own community, something worthy of their hearts.

That same year, we introduced a “Longest Night” service which was well attended and beautifully reminiscent of the magic of the season. It has become the new “ritual” and it is filled with truth, beauty, and wonder. We’ve shared that service with the wider community for nine years now and it has become a signature service for us, drawing participants from as wide a distance as the weather will allow. We have also changed our Easter services, and now call the two-Sunday experience “Dream Away”. It says nothing about the cross or the resurrection and everything about literally spending our lives, day by day, in our efforts to make this world a better place. We put the toothpaste where the members of our community expect to find it; we don’t expect them to sift through traditional language, symbol, and myth for a meaningful message.

If the people you choose to engage are those in the wider community, toying with the Christmas and Easter services will be a challenge. If you choose, instead, to continue drawing your own community forward in their experience of the Christian narrative, you will need to find a creative edge upon which to build something new that will be recognized and owned by the regular attendees as the services that speak most deeply to them. Perhaps you have the energy to provide both for a time.

Whatever you do, choose wisely. And put the toothpaste exactly where the audience you hope to draw – your own people or the wider community – expects to find it. Those will, most likely, be two very different places.

~ Rev. Gretta Vosper

This Q&A was originally published on Progressing Spirit – As a member of this online community, you’ll receive insightful weekly essays, access to all of the essay archives (including all of Bishop John Shelby Spong), and answers to your questions in our free weekly Q&A. Click here to see free sample essays.

About the Author
The Rev. Gretta Vosper is a United Church of Canada minister who is an atheist. Her best-selling books include With or Without God: Why The Way We Live is More Important Than What We Believe, and Amen: What Prayer Can Mean in a World Beyond Belief. She has also published three books of poetry and prayers.

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