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Ritual Studies

By August 5, 2016 13 Comments

It would be easy to scoff. Her website says she’s a “Life-Cycle Celebrant®.” Note the registered trademark. She is ready to help you mark the significant passages of your life—wedding, funeral, coming of age, pet adoption—with a ritual that she will design specifically for you and whatever loved ones you care to have in attendance. This ritual will reflect your beliefs, your history, your particular story.

It will cost you a fee, but don’t worry, she’s certified. She has graduated from the Celebrant Foundation & Institute™. Note the trademark. She has taken seven months of online courses, costing her $2400, and she pays her annual dues of $175 for her official certification. She’s part of an international network of Life-Cycle Celebrants!

The CF&I website assures aspiring celebrants that “Our engaging, online classes are taught by experienced Celebrant Faculty who provide students with a balanced curriculum of ceremonial theory and thorough real-life business practice.” Theory and business practice. You’re in good hands.

I mean, honestly. How narcissistic is a personally designed ritual? How deep and significant can it be if it was made up this week? Toss together few strands of red yarn, a couple candles, some balloons, a gong, and ta-da! You are marking significant life passages with reference to the numinous! You are spiritual but not religious and you are doing just fine!

It would be easy to scoff, but truthfully, I’m jealous.

That is to say, I recognize that Life-Cycle Celebrants operate where the church has failed. They even say so, respectfully and gently, on their website: “Recent Pew Studies reveal that a growing number of people aren’t connected to a specific religion and many are not religious at all, but still may consider themselves spiritual or secular. Life-Cycle Celebrants® offer an alternative, giving people of all backgrounds, traditions, cultures and faiths the opportunity to create ceremonies that best reflect their beliefs and ideals.”

People drift away from traditional religions for many reasons, and I don’t want to get into the subtleties of secularization theories here. The practical outcome of this drift, however, is that the “nones” have nowhere to go for rituals to mark the important transitions of life. Here’s what my friend Doug Gay, a professor of worship at the University of Glasgow, writes about the situation in Scotland, where the “nones” are 52 percent of the population:

[L]ike most of their peers across Europe, the rising generation of young Scots is embarked on a massive social and psychological experiment into how far it will be able to negotiate life—birth and death, suffering and celebration, beauty and cruelty, joy and despair—without the challenges and consolations of religion. How far will it be able to craft satisfying and meaningful new rituals and ceremonies to mark life transitions? What kind of story or stories will it tell itself about who it is and where it has come from and will these stories prove to be ‘thick’ enough to offer the depth of meaning and inspiration which the Christian story has over many centuries?

People who leave the church may enter a ritual-less life, but I wonder if one of the many reasons people drift away from traditional religions is that we have failed at ritual.

This may be true especially of the Protestant church. Allow me to be reductive and unfair for a moment. In too many Protestant churches, worship is a concert and a lecture. Infant baptism amounts to a long theological disquisition followed by an anemic sprinkle. Communion is a rare and thin encounter with “shot glasses on a hubcap” (as one of my Presbyterian friends describes it) also preceded by a long theological disquisition. Or no explanation at all, in which case no one quite understands the point.

Meanwhile, ministers in the Reformed church are reporting with some dismay that new members are requesting to be re-baptized because they “don’t remember” their infant baptism. They want a ritual, naturally, and those Baptists have a “better” one. I agree that theologically we should say no to such requests, but what have we got to offer to answer that human need?

And what about other life passages? I bet you have been to terrible church weddings and worse church funerals. Or how about coming of age? Roman Catholics have first communion for younger kids, Jews have bar and bat mitzvahs. The Protestant church: confirmation. A class and a certificate, a few awkward moments of standing in front of the congregation in a worship service. Our coming-of-age ritual thus says absolutely nothing about the body—a rather abiding concern for adolescents, one might guess—and this sends the message that the church has nothing to say about the body except: don’t.

I could go on, but here’s my proposal. We need ritual renewal. Not just liturgical renewal and enriched sacramental practice—which I’m all for—but a renewal of the ways we mark life passages in the Christian community. The church has the best story into which we can usher people’s personal journeys. Best because it’s true. But we’re not going to usher people into that mystery through a spectacular show, or through moralistic foot-stamping in the public square. We might, however, be able to sneak people back into the church—and help keep them there—through really good ritual.

On the way to that, maybe we can learn a few things from these Life-Cycle Celebrant people. They are reminding us: 1) Modern people need rituals that connect them to the transcendent. This need is urgent enough that they will seek such rituals out apart from traditional religion. 2) Rituals have to be embodied, not all up in the head. 3) Rituals need to make personal connections, not be merely traditional and standardized. 4) There’s room for creativity, even playfulness.

People attempting ritual outside the church are stuck with the merely personal, the pastiche, the co-opted-from-someone-else’s-tradition, the made-it-up-yesterday. People inside the church are sometimes stuck with thin, inadequate rituals or, on the other extreme, inexplicably fussy repetitions never connected to their personal stories. Or nothing at all to mark key passages of life.

When my kids were born, I wanted a ritual for the blessing of a newborn infant and parents. When they reached adolescence, I wished for a Christian coming-of-age ritual that honors but does not obsess about the body. I have a friend who longs for a service of forgiveness, release, and new beginning after a divorce. Some people want “pet blessings,” and some churches do them. And here’s a lovely idea: an organization called Threshold Choir will send a small group to sing comfortingly for the ill and dying.

So many places in life where people need ritual; it’s human nature. Ritual places into a bigger story the transitional moments of our lives, moments confusingly tangled with grief, fear, excitement, change. The most effective rituals are shared in an enduring community, clear in their meaning-making, connected to history, and embodied. They involve mind, spirit, emotions, and the senses.

The problem is, “individualized ritual” is a bit of a contradiction in terms. Rituals have meaning in community. So I wonder: How could Reformed churches embed the good word-resources we have into more fully embodied rituals? How can we develop and share theologically responsible, historically informed life-cycle rituals adapted to the contemporary context? How can we draw from the treasures of Christian history and practice to answer this need with creative and holy wisdom?

Debra Rienstra

I am a writer and literature professor, teaching literature and creative writing at Calvin University, where I have been on the faculty since 1996. Born and bred in the Reformed tradition, I’ve been unable to resist writing four books about theological topics: beware the writer doing theology without a license. My most recent book is Refugia Faith: Seeking Hidden Shelters, Ordinary Wonders, and the Healing of the Earth (Fortress, 2022). Besides the books, I’ve written well over two hundred essays for the RJ blog as well as numerous articles, poems, and reviews in popular and scholarly contexts. I have a B.A. from the University of Michigan (Go Blue!) and a M.A. and Ph.D. from Rutgers. I am married to Rev. Dr. Ron Rienstra, and together we have three grown children. Besides reading and writing, I love classical music, science fiction, fussing in the yard, hiking, and teaching myself useful skills like plant identification and—maybe someday—drywall repair.


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    So right on. Your challenge is compelling. And how do we do it well, without devolving into sentimental blather, where the cross and resurrection are somehow always still involved, or at least in the background.

    • Debra Rienstra says:

      Exactly. One of the things Ron asks his seminarians in sermon class is “So how is this different from Oprah?” Nothing against Oprah, but this is a way of asking whether cross and resurrection are both present in their sermons. Same challenge applies to rituals.

  • Rob Braun says:

    The first thing I thought of upon reading this is the tens of thousands of dollars Ministers of the Word in our denomination could save if they simply got this “Life-Cycle Celebrant®” degree. But then again, for most of us our Christian faith is more than simply a set of ritual life cycle events. It is sad that for some this is all that church represents, a string of life cycle events. How empty this must be. I hope that for many of us, our faith means more than a few rituals, though I agree that ritual does have its place.

    • Debra Rienstra says:

      Agreed! I’ve been thinking John 6:68 while writing this: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Tried to figure out how to get that in the post somehow, but it was getting long already. Rituals are useless if not a way to usher people toward Christ. That’s what the church has that no one else does.

  • James Hart Brumm says:

    I think you are on the right track with this, but I have a few comments:

    1. Doug Gay speaks of the “comforts and challenges” of religion. I think part of the reason we have people who are spiritual but not religious is that society wants the comfort without the challenge (the other part is that the church–bunch of ninnies that we are–has done so much to offer the challenge without the comfort). I think, for the comfort to be truly comforting, the challenge also needs to be present.

    2. The Reformed Church has the tools and the theology to create exactly the sorts of liturgies and rituals you suggest. Our order for Profession of Faith, far from being a sterile confirmation, allows for laying on of hands, involvement of the parents, and connection to baptism. The brilliant paper brought to a General Synod in the early ’90s by the Commission on Theology, I think, offers a theology for professing faith and raising Ebenezers at all sorts of life-points.

    3. Some of us are out in the church and the world trying to do what you propose, and getting attacked from all sides. I work at participatory, meaningful liturgies (just using the RCA orders and the Word, mind you) and I hear non-members who attend commenting again and again, “If I thought church was like this, I’d come all the time.”

    “It is like this, in many ways, every Sunday,” I say. “We’d love to see you.” I hardly ever do.

    In the meantime, I have people who only want the concert and the lecture (or just one or the other) constantly nagging at me for offering more, while people who want even more are upset with me for being pastoral to the first group and pulling them along slowly.

    • Debra Rienstra says:

      Thank you so much for these comments. Dear me, it sounds like you just can’t “win,” eh? The potential, as you say, is all there. But it’s very hard to get something new started. Part of church life since the beginning, I’m sure.

  • David Vandervelde says:

    Maybe you can apply for a lilly grant (or other) to form an RCA learning community around the some of these ideas. If you do, I’d be into that!

    Thanks, James, for sharing.

  • Claudia Beversluis says:

    When I taught pastoral care of adolescents at CTS, one of the assignments was to design a worship ritual to address a specific life issue. Collaboration between the pastoral care and the worship people has much potential. I think part of the challenge is always how much to narrate (“this is what this means”) and how much to rely on implicit memory.

  • Ted Pawlicki says:

    How did Christianity ever get into the ritual business?

    Isn’t the gospel is independent of life cycle events?

    Isn’t the need for life cycle rituals a universal human social need
    independent of belief and spiritual experience?

    If so, would it make sense to separate and distinguish the two
    rather than force them together? Why try to stamp the cross
    and the resurrection on everything if that is not what is really
    going on in the hearts of the people involved?

    It’s certainly fine for the Church to be in the life cycle ritual
    business for community building purposes, but could we
    be making an error in conflating these services with the gospel?

    • Debra Rienstra says:

      Interesting. Thanks for this thought-provoking comment. I think the idea behind my suggestions in the post is that EVERY aspect of our lives must be brought under the claim of the Gospel, under the Lordship of Christ. Rituals can be a way to show that: ushering our personal stories into God’s story of redemption.

  • The article and responses are fascinating! Thank you

  • Cody Raak says:

    I love this, obviously, but I too wonder what my role is as pastor. In some ways, my role is purely ritual for people. And as far as bodies, it seems the only embodiment many see in our church is sitting or standing. I lament that our understanding of bodies has become so anemic that we no longer consider singing, or reading, or listening, to be embodied acts, but merely cerebral. And what of our weekly practice of passing Christ’s peace? No, we don’t “greet one another with a holy kiss,” but we do practice fellowship and welcome through respectful, appropriate, kind touch. And in a rural church, which is still in many ways inherently multigenerational, rites of passage are marked by extended families and communities regularly. Ritual is everywhere here. I find that people simply haven’t been told what it means, so they don’t pay attention to it. What if my role as minister is simply to notice the ritual and to narrate it clearly and compellingly.

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