Seeking more Sensory services: abandoning the auditorium for the Sanctuary

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I really find most of the Lenten posts on social media from people in our tribe to be trite.  Really quite sophomoric.  Acting like they’ve discovered something new, using unused words in our circles like “Liturgy” or they are somehow now supremely profound because they want to give up coffee, chocolate, or Facebook for Lent…, SMH.  

Yet, they are onto something.  Our people are looking for something more.  

Ash Wednesday is in March this year, I already looked it up.  Why?  Every year I look forward to Lent, but not because of liturgical or spiritual reasons.  I’m a sucker for a good Catholic Fish fry!  The last couple of years have been hard with Covid, and I’m hoping this Lenten season the restrictions will not be necessary, life will get “back to normal,” and I can visit at least one of our quality local Catholic fish fries.

Fish fries aren’t my only connection to the Roman Catholic church.  My mother had me baptized as an infant in her childhood church.  She was part of the real deal growing up, Mass was in Latin.  She attended parochial school for her entire school career, she and her older sister attended high school at Sacred Heart which was an all-girls’ school, their brother attended high school across the road at the boys’ Benedictine.  BTW: Shortly after I graduated from Harding I enjoyed the blessing of baptizing my mother into Christ.  Sometimes life comes full circle.  

I also enjoy any Catholic service I have the opportunity to attend, sadly it’s typically funerals since I preach on Sundays.  The same can be said of me for a good Greek Orthodox service.  If you’ve never attended either, you are missing out.  Both services have brought tears to my eyes.  

I love the Greek Icons, the Catholic statues and the 12 stations of the Cross surrounding the walls of their Sanctuary.  Judge me all you want but I love the beauty of their architecture, the pomp & pageantry, I enjoy the unity and syncretism of people chanting the Lord’s prayer in unison, and I love-love the smell of the incense wafting throughout the sanctuary.  For the most part, I do not want all of it where I preach, but I truly wish our people who still have pews would add kneeling-benches to their pews. And above all, I really do love the fish fries the most.

As much as I do love a good fish fry, I’m not at all being sacrilegious or iconoclastic here, I have a deep love for those traditions and great respect for the people who practice their faith within, no matter how much I might disagree with some of the theology attached to Catholicism.  This is not an attack on the Catholic faith, neither is it a defense or promotion of it, it is though, a sounding of an alarm of sorts for our leaders who are asleep behind the wheel.

Our leaders need to wake up.  We have a generation of young to middle aged who are searching for a more sensory/experiential worship experience.  They are leaving the old “guard, guide and direct us” no crosses on the wall, primitive houses of worship in search of something that feels more tangible, more sensory.  And, they are following the lead of some of the most influential voices in Protestant and Evangelical circles.  

For example, are you familiar with Scot McKnight?  If not, you should be. I have several of his books in my library. He’s a prolific author and Seminary professor and he has spoken at many church of Christ lectureships and seminars — I would think it is safe to say he has been very influential in Restoration Movement churches.  I mention this influential believer to point out his own exodus from mainline evangelicalism, he’s now ordained in the Anglican church.  Also more recently there’s Beth Moore, another influential writer and speaker, has left the Baptist church and she now attends an Anglican church in Texas.

Personally, I love Dallas Willard’s intellect and insight, but when it comes to authors and writers, throughout the years my soul has been nurtured more by CS Lewis, Henri Nouwen, Thomas Merton, and Brennan Manning than anyone else, especially Manning!  There’s no denying the powerhouses of faith from Catholicism.  Where would any of us be without Augustine, Aquanis, or Thomas a’ Kempis?    

The reality is, our services are boring and too cerebral and we are about to find out the price of defending a sterile auditorium.  If you think raising hands or using instruments in the worship service or having women participate in worship was a big deal, I predict over the next decade (or even sooner) we will lose 20-30% of our flock to houses of worship where the people have a greater sensory experience.  In other words, if we do not help this generation to engage, they will disengage.  

I know a few people who’ve I been very close to in churches of Christ who have left the auditorium in search of the sanctuary.  Some have left because their spouses were Catholic and it was easier on their family dynamics to switch over, others left searching for something more holistic than the church of Christ has to offer.

Most of our younger people do not care about theology as much as they care about how to practice and express their faith.  Sensory filled experiences and deep theological based doctrines are not at odds, this isn’t an “either or” situation, unless our leaders make it one. 

Our churches need to stop penalizing forward thinkers who are creative and who can show the rest there is more to Sunday morning than listening to a sermon or passing an offering plate.  We are the Body of Christ, and the sacred body has more than just our ears & eyes to engage us in worship.  

Craig Cottongim

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