“But church is boring!”
Not a Sunday goes by without this protest uttered by my children as they are packed into the car for worship.
“I’m OK with that” is my response. This is a liturgy we’ve established through weekly repetition for over a decade.
The fact that my children and others, including myself -- the pastor -- are bored from time to time in worship is part of the reason I love it.
Let worship be boring. Worship should resist the logic of capitalism; it should be an invitation to achieve nothing, to produce nothing, to create nothing. Let worship make no calculable sense within the capitalist formation of desire -- including the desire to produce moral people intent on doing good.
My children aren’t bored in worship all the time, and neither am I. Our church’s prayers are rich. Our music is beautiful. We integrate children and their gifts into the service. The sermons, if I do say so myself, are generally thoughtful and engaging.
But it still gets boring. I don’t love every hymn, and not every prayer is transporting. At times, my mind wanders. My attention drifts. I make lists or write articles (ironically, like this one) in my head.
I’m not surprised that it’s hard to sit still and simply be present on Sunday morning. This is the one space in my life that isn’t centered on keeping me content. Capitalism commodifies everything in its path; it’s the economics that possesses and animates our world, and sometimes our churches. There is no other space in which my desires are not formed and honed for consumption. Every part of me -- soul, body, mind and spirit -- is a target of marketing.
A while ago, a conversation came up among a group in our church. Why didn’t we use Sunday morning for a work project, to volunteer together? It’s a question in the same vein as ones I hear from parents who are interested in church because it will make their children moral or ethical. For many, church is there to produce a certain outcome: to form better people, to reshape the world, to cultivate justice.
I hope that the church will challenge this way of thinking about worship, even when we perceive such outcomes as good, holy or just.
“Christian worship is predicated on the understanding that there is nothing left to achieve,” writes the Catholic theologian James Alison in his book “Undergoing God.” “It has already been achieved, once and for all. The struggle is over; the Kingdom has been inaugurated and obtained.”
Church does not care that I’m not getting exactly what I’ve been trained to want.
The boringness of worship is a reminder of this truth, Alison continues. Worship “is a long-term education in becoming un-excited.” To stay here is to cultivate a kind of absurdity -- participation in a world that is senseless, because Jesus requires us to do nothing.
Creating a space like this takes vigilance. In fact, I suspect that the kind of life we produce might strain the well-reasoned goodness of neoliberalism. Christians commit ourselves to being people who will never become productive citizens, who indeed may challenge economic and political cultures of meritocracy. We give our money frivolously to lost causes. We are, in fact, a people who believe that death is not the end.
Of course, we hope that the church will be free from obsession with productivity. But just as there’s no space in the world free from commodification, it’s hard to keep the church resistant to the creeping desires for relevance, personal fulfillment and publicly intelligible good.
It’s difficult to let things be boring in a culture where opportunities for spiritual enlightenment and community become ever more plentiful, from CrossFit to pop-up choirs to book groups. We wonder why, with so many shiny objects, people would commit their time, money and energy to this community that’s content with wasting time; after all, time is sold as our most precious commodity. With falling numbers, it makes sense that churches often position themselves as competitors for meaning making in the wider market.
It can be difficult to accept what this might mean -- that the formation of our desires by capitalism makes attempts to attract people to worship complicated. We may discover that being faithful to worship that makes space for the boring requires smaller churches, less overhead, more lay leadership, and a vision of growth that is deep and not wide.
But perhaps we’ll also discover, as we are faithful to worship of the living God, that people are longing to relax into what God has already accomplished in Jesus Christ. Perhaps we’ll find that it is a gift to have an hour where no one is catering to our capitalist-formed desires, where no one is trying to grasp our attention, where worship, in its beauty and boringness, is enough.