In March 1943, the Gestapo arrested and imprisoned Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a young Lutheran theologian and pastor, because documents linked him to subversive activities against the Reich. Two years later, just a few days before the end of the war in Europe, he was hanged at the Flossenbürg concentration camp.
A year before his execution, as he sat alone inside cell 92 in Berlin’s Tegel prison, Bonhoeffer reflected on the state of the church to which he had devoted his adult life. In a letter to his close friend Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer wrote about the seeming ineffectiveness of Christianity—and religion in general—in contemporary life.
We are moving towards a completely religionless time; people as they are now simply cannot be religious anymore. Even those who honestly describe themselves as ‘religious’ do not in the least act up to it, and so they presumably mean something quite different by ‘religious’…
And if therefore man becomes radically religionless—and I think that is already more or less the case (else, how is it, for example, that this war, in contrast to all previous ones, is not calling forth any ‘religious’ reaction?)—what does that mean for ‘Christianity’?
In light of the depravity of the Nazi state and the horrific violence of the Second World War, perpetrated by religious people on all sides, the church had proven to be either incapable or unwilling to deal with the evils of the modern world. For many, the religious practices of Christianity had become personal and private, and were largely divorced from social ethics and politics. The mainstream churches in the so-called “Christian nations” proved to have no prophetic voice.
Bonhoeffer was disturbed that religious people were not speaking out and their social and political struggles were conducted without drawing on their faith—or more likely, that their faith had become so disjointed from social and political conditions that they saw no connection. If religious institutions in every nation were willingly transformed into servants and chaplains of their respective states, and if Christians were not raising a prophetic voice for peace and justice, Bonhoeffer asked if there was some other way that one could be a Christian in a world of continual injustice, suffering, and violence.
Bonhoeffer was struggling with what remains when the typical traits of a religion—clergy, religious institutions, sacred rites, orthodox beliefs, and a rigid moral code—are eliminated. How would that redefine Christianity and what would become of the church as a result?
Bonhoeffer believed that in the future a religionless Christianity—stripped of its religious garments—would be limited to two things: prayer and action. He believed that through these two acts Christians would learn to see the world from a new perspective, with the eyes of those at the bottom of society—the people that Matthew called “the least of these.” For Bonhoeffer, prayer—especially intercessory prayer—becomes important because it creates a powerful sense of empathy and solidarity with the people one brings before God. This, in turn, motivates one to engage in “righteous” action—the seeking of justice in human society.
Seventy years later, we are witnessing the rapid decline of Christianity in the Global North. Postmodern people seem to be heading away from traditional ‘church Christianity’ to some new mode of being a Christian in the world—Christianity developing outside of the walls of a church building. The magnificent cathedrals of Europe lie empty, or have been transformed into concert halls and museums. In the United States, with each succeeding generation, participation in churches and synagogues continues to decline. It is a time of great uncertainty for many Christians, and especially for congregations. Will the future of the Christian faith bear some semblance to today’s institutional church, or will it be found outside the walls of the sanctuaries in some uniquely new manifestation? Must Christianity divest its religious garments in order to embrace an increasingly nonreligious secular world? No one can accurately predict what will happen as the decline of the institution continues. However—if as Bonhoeffer foresaw—prayer and righteous action will be the only clear signs of a different kind of Christianity without religion, what does that mean to the future of the church’s ancient rites and rituals? Can we be faithful to God without corporate worship?
In his letter to the Christians at Rome, the Apostle Paul suggested that God wants something entirely different from us—an alternative kind of worship: an ethic of compassion, a life of service to others, and the pursuit of peace and justice. For Paul, these acts represent the only form of worship that a God of love deems good, acceptable, and perfect.
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1-2)
Here is how Eugene Patterson paraphrases these two verses:
So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You will be changed from the inside out.
In an unpublished essay, Dr. Lesly Massey, a Disciple of Christ pastor in Dallas, Texas, quoted Ernst Käsemann, an eminent Lutheran theologian who—like Bonhoeffer—was part of the Confessing Church in Germany. Käsemann saw in Romans 12:1-2 an unequivocal summary of Paul’s view of worship as a follower of Jesus.
Christian worship does not consist of what is practiced at sacred sites, at sacred times, and with sacred acts. It is the offering of bodily existence in the otherwise profane sphere, as something constantly demanded. This takes place in daily life, whereby every Christian is simultaneously sacrifice and priest.
Massey further commented on Käsemann’s analysis:
In other words, Paul does not define worship in terms of rituals or ceremonies performed by Christians when assembled together, and therefore segregated from routine life. On the contrary, true worship is offered through the believer’s daily life by means of a noble ethos practiced openly in the world. God’s will is accomplished through that which is seemingly profane, and with such God is well pleased . . .
In a sense, Romans 12:1 illustrates Paul’s inclination to decentralize religion, specifically the Christian’s life of service to God, removing the holy presence from a stone temple and placing it within each believer, and within all believers as a community of faith and the true temple of God . . .
True worship, therefore, amounts to an approach to mundane activities that gives evidence of an inner conversion and transformation by the living presence of Christ. This to Paul was the appropriate response to divine grace, and the only sensible, beneficial, and proper means of honoring God. In order to “worship” God one must offer a “service to God.” The interests of God, the will of God, are not “served” by rituals, symbols, gestures, ceremonies, or platitudes. Paul was convinced, from his understanding of the teaching of Jesus, that God cannot be patronized by human lip-service. Rather, God is served by noble and exemplary living motives, attitudes, perspectives, choices, and actions that demonstrate divine love and goodness in the world.
‘Church’ Christianity is dying. Congregations are aging and younger people are leaving. Newer generations may never enter the doors of a church except for weddings and funerals. The old mission of the church—inviting people into fellowship for the forgiveness of sins and the assurance of a passage to heaven—no longer seems to be working. It is hard to predict what form Christianity might take in years to come. However, if Bonhoeffer was right, the future may lie with those religionless Christians who seek justice, practice peacemaking, and engage in compassionate service outside the walls of the local congregation. Our good, acceptable, and perfect worship takes place in the midst of the world where people are hurting—in the very arena where Jesus lived, worked, and died, and toward which he calls us to follow.