As rituals change, what will the future church look like?

Friday, June 15, 2012 10:41 PM

Most of us have seen them — roadside altars where those who have died in traffic accidents are remembered. There is usually a cross, some plastic flowers, mementos of the deceased, and sometimes a photograph. Most aren’t very large. My sense is they are placed as close to the site of the death as possible.

I first saw altars like this when I was a child vacationing in Mexico with my parents. I forgot about them until they started showing up a couple of decades ago in Wisconsin where I was living. But the altars in Wisconsin were not erected by Hispanics. Given the demographics of the northern part of the state at the time, it was probably mainline Protestant or religiously unaffiliated Anglos who created these little wayside memorials. And since then, here in the Four Corners as everywhere else I’ve traveled, these altars have become ubiquitous. I’ve begun to wonder what it is that has changed in our culture these past decades that has resulted in their proliferation.

Cultural anthropologists tell us that as a species, we humans have always engaged in ritual. It is part of who we are and how we structure our societies. It is how we deal with the unknown. It is how we live in and make sense of an overwhelming cosmos. So what has changed in our society that we find meaning in this new practice?

Wherever people have migrated there are graves along their expansion routes. Folks far from the home they were leaving, who had not yet arrived at the home to which they were moving, had been left with little choice but to bury their dead along the route. That is one thing, but this is different. These little altars mark the death site, not the burial site.

Roadside altars historically were expressions of a belief that the spirit of the deceased lingered where a person died. How many present-day Latinos, or Anglos for that matter, hold to that belief, I do not know. But something is moving people — in what appears to be increasing numbers — to create these mini religious sites. I have to wonder if it might not have something to do with our increasing disengagement from the life of ritual we used to find in church.

It has been well-documented that since the 1950s regular church attendance has declined. We know, too, that among the Millennial Generation (born after 1980) “young people are much less likely to affiliate with any religious tradition or to identify themselves as part of a Christian denomination. Fully one in four adults under age 30 (25 percent) are unaffiliated....” ( As one person I know put it, “No longer do we decide to be churchgoers. We decide each Sunday (or Saturday for some) whether or not to go to church.”

For those of us who do attend a church, even if our particular congregation is thriving, unless there is some unexpected change in our culture, the handwriting is on the wall. Our religious institutions, as we’ve known them, at some point will be no more. Those of us who value the ritual we have experienced in church, the ritual that has brought us closer to God and has given us ways to express our deepest longings, might join me in wondering what religious ritual will look like in the future. As a species our inclination to ritual will not just go away. It will, however, morph into something we might now only be able to imagine.

With our increasing use of technology for communication and our declining inclination to join any sort of group (see Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community”), we are becoming more physically isolated. What can religious ritual look like in such an environment? Is it possible that altars along the road give us a glimpse of the future of religious ritual? Or will something akin to Tweeting about our beloved dead become the method that brings meaning or consolation to our loss?

It is easy to think that ritual is something in which we are the actors — that we make ritual happen, and that is true. It is also true that rituals have an effect on us. And the rituals we choose to engage in contribute to who we become. In churchy language, we would say that our rituals help form who we are. Do we want to be an isolated people? Do we think that is a good way for humans to live — a way that is of God?

In the same way that it is a choice whether or not to believe, — and if we choose to believe, what we believe, — it is also a choice how to live that belief out ritually. By the choices we are making today, we are forming not only the church of our future, but also a piece of our culture that will, in turn, form our young people who will grow up in it.

Leigh Waggoner is priest at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church. She can be reached at 565-7865, or