The Changing Ways of Devotion and Worship

Recently, I spent a few days in New York City, as a mini-vacation and as a way to step away from my usual mundane life in the middle of Maine to experience a little, as we Mainers would say, “cul-cha.” In just a few short days, I crammed in visits to museums, a play, whisky tasting and even a performance of Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte at the Metropolitan Opera.

One of the museum visits was to The Cloisters, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s home for medieval art. It’s a bit of a hike to The Cloisters, but from previous visits, I knew it was worth the effort. Among its more famous holdings is the impressive seven-tapestry drama “The Hunt of the Unicorn,” from Belgium, around 1500.

Given that the museum is focused on medieval art from Europe, the subject of a lot of the art is, in one way or another, Christianity. There are paintings and sculptures and altarpieces, featuring Madonna and Child, or stories from the Gospels, especially from the end of the earthly life of Jesus Christ.

During this particular visit, I found myself paying close attention to the smaller pieces, items that were likely in a home for personal or family devotions. This piece is a portable devotional shrine focusing on Virgin and Child, from early 1300s France:

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Although I suspect that there are Christian homes that continue to hold such devotional pieces, they are certainly not central to the current practice of the faith, especially in the United States. We’ve “moved on” to other methods of devotion. As post-Enlightenment people, devotional materials, particularly among Mainline Protestant churches, involves written material, like the “Daily Devotional” offered by the United Church of Christ or “God Pause,” provided by Luther Seminary.

The ways of practicing the faith have evolved, and continues to evolve. We are presently in the midst of a time that seems so full of evolution of faith practice that it’s hard to keep up with all of the changes.

At Old South, we are very much a twentieth-century, traditional church. Our worship and devotional style hasn’t changed much since the 1950s. For those who gather, it’s a meaningful way of practicing the faith. For many of our children and grandchildren, however, it is not.

When people at Old South start talking about the churches in the area with full parking lots, “Why can’t we be more like them?” I ask them if they are interested in attending worship that is more in a theater-type space, with a rock band and a (male) minister in jeans who offers a long sermon. I don’t even need to get past the rock band part of the description to know that they are not interested.

And that’s okay.

The ways of Christian practice and devotion have evolved and changed in lots of ways over a long period of time. This isn’t the only time of great change.

As I gazed upon those lovely pieces of personal devotion at The Cloisters, now trapped behind glass in a museum, I wondered how my own practice of worship and devotion will be remembered years from now. Will some museum display a worship bulletin or perhaps offer a place where visitors can watch a video of worship?

The ways of worship and devotion change over time. The temptation may be to make judgments regarding forms of worship and devotion that are different from one’s own. But, it’s important to refrain from such judgments. Worship and devotion change over time, but that doesn’t mean that we are marching toward “better” worship and devotion, nor is one way or another clearly more pleasing to God.  From what we learn in the Holy Scriptures, God doesn’t seem all that swayed by popularity.

One may find connection to God through personal shrines or through singing familiar hymns or through a band playing contemporary praise music.  What’s important is that connection, and the sense of meaning and authenticity in one’s worship.  Our devotional life ought to remind us, again and again, that to worship God is to understand deeply that we are not God.  Nor can any one person or group claim to know God fully.

The ways of worship and devotion change and evolve, but worship and devotion isn’t like buying a car.  A newer way may not be better, more powerful, more efficient, or even packed with improved safety features.  Whether we choose a newer way or stick with the more traditional, it’s about worship and our connection to the Creator.  It’s about being the Church of Jesus Christ, sharing hope and love as best we are able.  And always coming back to the source of our life, and offering our thanks and praise.

About smaxreisert

I'm a United Church of Christ pastor serving the small, faithful Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Hallowell, Maine. I was ordained in Massachusetts in 1995, moved to Maine in 1997 and have served the Hallowell church since 2005.
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