Engaging the Divine: In-person gatherings not required for worship

Rev. James J. Popham
The Rev. James J. Popham

Just before Christmas I read two competing opinion pieces in a major city newspaper. One was entitled in part “Praying apart isn’t the same as praying together ....” The other countered “You don’t have to be in a church to pray or feel spiritually nourished.”

Putting aside the merits of the legal arguments concerning COVID-19 restrictions on churches, these columns tee up underlying issues about the relative roles and values of individual spirituality versus in-person community worship.

No one can seriously dispute the value of personal spiritual practices. In fact, they are integral to the practice of most, if not all, religious faiths. They may involve prayers designed to accompany specific tasks or activities. Grace before meals is a familiar example. They may be prescribed in prayer books or purely extemporaneous. They may be prayers specified for particular times of day or completely spontaneous. They may involve periods of meditation or contemplation. It may just be a moment watching a beautiful sunset or a crashing surf when God’s presence is palpable. And, of course, we all utter those impromptu prayers urgently seeking divine assistance or protection or expressing gratitude for God’s involvement in our lives at a critical moment.

Neither the authenticity nor efficacy of these forms of individual prayer are open to question. They all connect us with the divine. But are they adequate on their own or is assembly required?

Presuming on anyone else’s faith or spirituality is risky business, but we can point to a number of spiritual benefits that flow from worship and prayer in community. When we pray and sing together, we draw on a spiritual energy that comes only from community. And ritual can suggest meaning with unique depth and beauty.

Institutional churches typically provide prayer books, devotional and religious texts (e.g., the Bible), prescribed disciplines, and community support for personal spiritual practices. We are more likely to actually observe our spiritual disciplines when we are accountable to a like-minded community. We also gain the ability to discern and reflect with others on the meaning of our spiritual endeavors and investigations. And we expand our knowledge and perspectives when we can engage with others’ experiences and viewpoints. This can happen in formal study programs or just at organized or impromptu social gatherings.

Finally, in times of cultural upheaval, worshipping in community not only offers a respite from the cares and afflictions of life and presents a stable framework for approaching life and making ethical decisions, but often provides an opportunity for serving the less fortunate in their need.

None of this is to suggest that we gather irresponsibly in the midst of the current pandemic. Protecting ourselves and our neighbors from exposure to COVID-19 is integral to loving our neighbors as ourselves. We are blessed to be able to gather

electronically via Facebook and Zoom, perhaps, reaching people we never have reached before. But gathering in person for worship, study, conversation, and service add dimensions to our spiritual journeys that cannot be replaced flying solo.

The Rev. James J. Popham is rector at St. Andrews By-the-Sea in Destin.