Why Interfaith Services Don't Work
Yesterday we learned more details about the interfaith National Prayer Service that takes place on Wednesday morning at the National Cathedral in Washington. This particular event marks the end of the inaugural events for President Barack Obama. It seems as if the organizers tried to include everyone. Several evangelicals are taking part, including megachurch pastor Andy Stanley. If you survey the long list of participants, you find several rabbis, the president of the Hindu Temple Society of North America, the first woman to serve as president of the Islamic Society of North America, the Catholic Archbishop of Washington, and a variety of pastors and assorted religious leaders. Katherine Jefferts-Schori, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church USA, will deliver a closing prayer.
I didn’t see any Amish leaders on the list. Pretty much everyone else will be there.
Before saying anything else, I pause to offer two qualifying statements:
1) President Obama is entitled to have whoever he wants. He wanted Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at Tuesday’s Inaugural Ceremony, he got him, and for what it’s worth, I thought it was a good idea. So if he wants a prayer service with everyone except the Amish, that’s his right. After all, it’s his inauguration.
2) I don’t quarrel with Andy Stanley (or anyone else) for attending and praying. Few pastors would turn down an invitation like that.
So what’s my beef? I don’t see the point of the service. It’s a Duke’s mixture of things that don’t belong together. In what meaningful sense can evangelicals, Catholics, Orthodox Christians, liberal protestants, Jews, Hindus and Muslims come together for an “interfaith” service? We aren’t praying to the same God. We don’t even share the same conception of God.
What, exactly, do these people all have in common? Well, consider this sentence from Presidential Inaugural Committee Communications Director Josh Earnest:
"The National Prayer Service, which will embody the themes of tolerance, unity and understanding, is a worship service for all Americans."
If you drop out the middle clause, here’s what you get: “The National Prayer Service is a worship service for all Americans.” So in order to do that, we get representatives from every religion under the sun, turn them loose to do their thing, put them together in the National Cathedral, and say, “Let’s all worship now."
There is no way to answer those questions because there are no satisfactory answers. Muslims and Hindus and Jews and Christians don’t worship the same things in the same way.
So maybe the middle clause is the answer. We want to embody the themes of tolerance, unity and understanding. Fine. Let’s have a pie social, play Uno, and then have a huge volleyball match with every religion sending its own team, winner take all. Now that’s a idea I could support.
And by the way, tolerance is fine but what does it have to do with unity? "Can two walk together unless they are agreed?” (Amos 3:3). We see tolerance at work all across America when the Baptists do their thing, the Muslims do theirs, the Hindus do theirs, the Mormons do theirs, the Catholics do theirs, and the Lutherans do theirs. No, it doesn’t work perfectly, nothing ever does, but true tolerance means giving space to others to worship as they see fit even though I may disagree with what they are doing.
Explain the “unity” of the service on Wednesday morning if you can. It may be a political event or even a cultural event where we all hold hands and sing Kum Ba Ya. It is not and cannot be a worship service because worship by its very nature both unites and divides. Remember these two questions if you happen to watch the service on Wednesday:
What are you worshiping?
Who are you worshiping?
Maybe the Amish have a point. They won’t be there because they will be too busy baking bread and building heaters, two activities that will do more good than anything that happens at the National Cathedral.