The Rapidian Home

Ethics and Religion Talk: Does God Care About Rituals?

Some religious traditions have practices, rituals or sacraments that have to be done in a very specific way. Does God really care? Why?

What is Ethics and Religion Talk?

“Ethics and Religion Talk,” answers questions of ethics or religion from a multi-faith perspective. Each post contains three or four responses to a reader question from a panel of nine diverse clergy from different religious perspectives, all based in the Grand Rapids area. It is the only column of its kind. No other news site, religious or otherwise, publishes a similar column.

The first five years of columns, published in the Grand Rapids Press and MLive, are archived at More recent columns can be found on by searching for the tag “ethics and religion talk.”

We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

For more resources on interfaith dialogue and understanding, see the Kaufman Interfaith Institute page and their weekly Interfaith Insight column at

Rev. Ray Lanning, a retired minister of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, responds:

Reformed and Presbyterian Christians believe that God really does care about the worship that we offer to Him. The Second Commandment (“Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them,” Exodus 20:34, 5a) brings God’s will for our worship into sharp focus. God’s people are not left free to consult their own understanding, imagination, their tastes or inclinations when it comes to how they worship God. “What doth God require in the Second Commandment? That we in no wise represent God by images, nor worship Him in any other way than He has commanded in His Word” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 96). 

During the last decades of the 20th Century, many churches were caught up in “the worship wars.” Some clung to traditional ways, others repudiated them and demanded change. Endless innovation was pitted against mindless traditionalism. Worship committees conducted opinion surveys and asked for suggestions, while space was made for praise teams and worship bands. At no point did anyone ask, “What worship does God command in His Word? What worship is pleasing and acceptable to Him?”

The Protestant Reformers understood that many of the errors and abuses of the church they sought to reform were embedded in and acted out in man-made forms and customs of public worship introduced over many centuries. For Calvin and his fellow laborers, the written Word of God had to be applied to the daily and weekly services of the churches under their care. In a Reformed church, “all things are managed according to the pure Word of God, all things contrary thereto rejected” (Belgic Confession, Art. 29). The starting point was God and His Word, not tradition, human opinion or popular taste. Today’s heirs of the Reformation would do well to adopt the same standard for public worship.

The Rev. Salvatore Sapienza, the Senior Pastor at Douglas Congregational United Church of Christ in Saugatuck/Douglas, responds:

I love that the word “ritual” is part of the word “spiritual.” Rituals are rites (practices) that consciously connect us with the Spirit (the Presence of the Divine).

The Spirit of God is always present, of course, but our attention is often lacking. Father Richard Rohr says, “We cannot attain the presence of God, because we're already totally in the presence of God. What's absent is our awareness.”

Religious rites are practiced to help us become more aware and fully present of the Presence of God, which is always with us. We sometimes call these rituals “practices” – a word which I love, because the more we practice something, the better we get at it. We may not perform things perfectly, at first, but the more we practice our religious rituals, the better we get at recognizing more fully God’s love and presence within us and around us.

We don’t have to do anything special to earn God’s favor or to win God’s love, because we already have it. Traditional rituals and practices, however, are important and meaningful ways for us to make conscious contact not only with God but with the community of believers who came before us and who passed these rites on to us.

We may not always perform these rituals with the precise execution of our ancestors, but it is our intention and our attention, I believe, which matters most to God, who takes great delight in us and our devotional attempts, which are ​always “holy and perfect” in God’s eyes.

Fred Stella, the Pracharak (Outreach Minister) for the West Michigan Hindu Temple, responds:

Hinduism is a very ritual rich faith. While some devotees eschew elaborate temple worship, the majority engage in it at least occasionally.  Some may be very invested in every wave of an oil lamp or incense stick at the right time, thinking that there might be more punya (spiritual merit) accrued if everything is just so. My reasoning for attempting to “get everything right” is more mundane. An important part of ritual is familiarity. The people gathered come to expect this to happen at such-and-such a time. Much comfort can be gleaned by doing things by the book, so to speak. But we should also remain flexible, allowing for modification when appropriate. 

There is a mantra from the Vedas called Brahmapurnam. One of the lines is that “God is the sacrifice, God is the oblation.” The act of the ritual is God. This is important to understand. With this mindset, there is perfection even in imperfection. So no, God “doesn’t care” about the details. Intent and devotion are uppermost in in importance.

Linda Knieriemen, Senior Pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Holland, responds:

I don’t think God cares a whit about perfection of religious practice or rituals. These religious elements are established for the spiritual benefit of the adherent. Repetition of rituals, performed carefully, over time, perhaps as others have done for centuries,  can bring comfort, connection with tradition, and serve as a repeatable avenue to connection with the spiritual realm. 

For an adherent,  deviation from the norm may be distracting and adversely affect the hoped for spiritual benefit, but God is not offended. God is gracious and God honors intent.  Religious practices should be undertaken with respect and reverence, but not with fear or anxiety for saying an incorrect word or making a imprecise gesture. Ritual isn’t a performance. 

Recently I attended a worship service led by a visiting pastor. At the time of the communion the pastor didn’t offer one of the prayers at the normal time, didn’t indicate the congregants could be seated, stumbled at the breaking of the bread and became visibly flustered. One of the other worship leaders scowled while some congregants tittered embarrassed for her. When I greeted the visiting pastor at the door I said that, as a retired pastor, I appreciated their  gracious, yet informal respect of the sacrament. The pastor, embarrassed at her mistakes thanked me, through tears.  The presider at a ritual should prepare well, but is still an imperfect instrument whose service delights God. The worshippers can learn gracious acceptance of this imperfection as well. 


This column answers questions of Ethics and Religion by submitting them to a multi-faith panel of spiritual leaders in the Grand Rapids area. We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up in the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

The Rapidian, a program of the 501(c)3 nonprofit Community Media Center, relies on the community’s support to help cover the cost of training reporters and publishing content.

We need your help.

If each of our readers and content creators who values this community platform help support its creation and maintenance, The Rapidian can continue to educate and facilitate a conversation around issues for years to come.

Please support The Rapidian and make a contribution today.

Comments, like all content, are held to The Rapidian standards of civility and open identity as outlined in our Terms of Use and Values Statement. We reserve the right to remove any content that does not hold to these standards.