Unbought: On The Need to Decommodify Worship by T. Denise Anderson

At the end of every Sunday service, I include the following in my benediction: “Now that we’ve had church, let us go out to be Church. Now that we’ve worshipped Christ, let us go out and follow him.” It’s a regular reminder for us all that what we’ve done together is only a portion of what we are called to do and be.

I came up in church circles where worship was, I’m sad to say, commodified. When someone moves to a new area, they are expected to “shop” for a church much as they would for new furniture. I once had a pastor who would regularly give the invitation to discipleship by saying, “You’ve got your barbershop or beautician lined up. You’ve got your cleaners or your mechanic. You need to have a church!” He was simply trying to make the point that a local church should be as much a staple of one’s life as one’s favorite grocery store. The analogy juxtaposes goods and services with spiritual community. The problem here (which, to be fair to him, is unintentional on his part) is that people are not thought to be “called” to their dry cleaning service of choice. They choose that service based on other factors — price, convenience, service, etc. These are decisions we make based on our satisfaction. We often make decisions about church/spiritual community using similar criteria and rarely realize we’re doing it.

America is largely Christian and staunchly capitalist. The challenge of being a Christian in America is that capitalist values are often insidiously conflated with Christian values. Tithes and offerings aren’t responses to a God who has already been generous to us; they are investments with the promise of return. The choir has to be phenomenal, or else we lose interest. Pastors pull out their hair crafting liturgies that are compelling and meaningful, as if we can force meaning or impact. Easter pageants must top productions from previous years. It’s not hard to buy into (pun intended) the model of ministry as a product.

So, how do we utilize liturgy as a tool of resistance? Perhaps we do that by first resisting the urge to consume it as we do so many other things. Perhaps we actively and intentionally de-commodify our worship practices.

Borrowing from one of my favorite hymns, I offer that our liturgies should seek to answer a simple question: What do we need “for the living of these days?” I live in a world in which my head is constantly spinning. My congregants and I are all over the spectrum politically, yet we all often don’t know what to make of the news out of the halls of government. How is the liturgy, the work of the people, the work we all do together, preparing us for when we are no longer together? How will it help us interpret the times and speak truth to power?

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately with the Samaritan woman at the well from John 4. After she realizes someone special — a prophet, per her discernment — is speaking to her, she takes the opportunity to ask about appropriate worship practices. Jesus reframes her understanding of worship. When it comes to worship, it’s not about the where or what as much as the how. True worshipers worship in spirit and in truth. One of the connotations of the Greek word for “truth” is objectivity. Truth is truth in any situation. It is a constant, and as a constant it doesn’t change if the venue changes. In a world of rapid and seemingly incessant movement, we need a constant. Liturgy can equip us to hold onto the constant among the chaos. We don’t have to lose our centering once we leave the sanctuary. In fact, we can’t afford to.

Perhaps liturgy’s most necessary role for the living of these tumultuous and crazy-making days is providing a stability that commodification simply cannot. Consumption compels us to follow and chase trends, and trends are not constants. In fact, they are constantly changing! It’s when the waters are raging that the church must drop anchor and find stability. Stability, not stasis.

As a pastor, I’ve been working more intently at impressing upon my congregation (or wherever else I may be preaching and leading) the need for worship beyond the walls. At the DISGRACE Conference at Montreat this past October, Melissa Harris Perry pointed out architectural trends in American churches, and how church buildings began evoking Noah’s ark. The ceilings, covered in wood panelling, resembled the bilge of a ship. The message was that the church was a space of refuge for the called faithful. What was less apparent, however, was how the faithful were not only called in, but sent out. We were commissioned to make other disciples of Jesus. The Jesus who wasn’t afraid to be unpopular with the powerful. The Jesus who audaciously healed those society deemed as sinners or untouchable, and on the sabbath! The Jesus who stood with the marginalized and was so convinced that sinners could be redeemed that he wasn’t afraid to have dinner with them. Liturgy reminds us of that Jesus. Liturgy calls us to be more like him.
In “these days”, we need liturgy that challenges and empowers, that reminds us that we are called to do hard things, but also that we are made to do hard things. We need liturgy that both calls in and sends out, that impresses upon the people the necessity and urgency of the work at hand. We are comforted that we might comfort. We are fed that we might feed. And we are sent out that we might encourage others as they are sent. The ultimate resistance to chaos is stability — truth. May our liturgies help us tell it!

The Rev. Denise Anderson was elected in 2016 to serve as Co-Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), 2016-2018. She was born in Oxford, England while both of her parents served in the U.S. Air Force. She graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia and continued her studies at Howard University School of Divinity in Washington, D.C.

While under care, Anderson served on her presbytery’s Committee on Representation and as a Pastoral Assistant at Taiwanese Presbyterian Church of Washington, where she led the English Ministry. She wrote for National Capital Presbytery’s monthly newsletter, which later inspired her to start her own blog, SOULa Scriptura: To Be Young, Gifted, and Reformed. In 2014, Anderson accepted a call to pastor Unity Presbyterian Church in Temple Hills, Maryland. She continues to serve National Capital Presbytery where she continues to serve on the Leadership Council and as a Vital Signs© interpretation consultant. She is also on the NEXT Church strategy team, and continues to write, having appeared in a number of publications and contributed to the book, There’s a Woman in the Pulpit: Christian Clergywomen Share Their Hard Days, Holy Moments and the Healing Power of Humor (Skylight Paths).