EVERY year, more than six million people travel to an isolated cedar forest on the Shima Peninsula in Japan. They come to the Grand Shrine of Ise, where the Shinto sun goddess, Amaterasu Omikami, has been worshipped for some two thousand years. The worshippers first purify themselves by washing their hands and mouth. Then, standing before the shrine’s haiden (worship hall), they follow a ritual in which they bow, clap, and pray to the goddess. * Shinto allows its adherents to practice other faiths, and some Buddhists, professed Christians, and others see no conflict in performing the Shinto rituals at this shrine.
Many of the world’s major religions have shrines, * and countless millions of people visit them. In professed Christian lands, there are numerous churches and shrines dedicated to Jesus, Mary, and the saints. Others like them are established in locations where Biblical events or “miracles” of more recent times are said to have taken place or where religious relics are kept. Many people go to the shrines because they believe that their prayers are more likely to be heard if offered in a sacred place. For others, reaching a shrine is the culmination of a long pilgrimage they have made to demonstrate their religious devotion.
Are prayers and petitions more likely to be heard and answered if they are offered at a shrine? Will God be pleased by the devotion of those who make pilgrimages to shrines? More to the point, should Christians worship at shrines? The answers to these questions will not only tell us how we should view worshipping at shrines but also help us to understand the kind of worship that truly pleases God.
WORSHIP “WITH SPIRIT AND TRUTH”
A conversation that Jesus had with a Samaritan woman reveals God’s view of worship at sacred places or shrines. Jesus was traveling through Samaria and stopped to rest at a well near the city of Sychar. He struck up a conversation with a woman who came to draw water from the well. As they talked, the woman pointed out a major religious difference between the Jews and the Samaritans. “Our forefathers worshipped on this mountain,” she said, “but you people say that in Jerusalem is the place where people must worship.”
The mountain that the woman referred to was Mount Gerizim, located about 30 miles (50 km) north of Jerusalem. There the Samaritans once had a temple where they celebrated festivals such as the Passover. However, instead of focusing on this controversial difference between them, Jesus said to the woman: “Believe me, woman, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father.” (John 4:21) What an astounding comment, especially coming from a Jew! Why would the worship at God’s temple in Jerusalem cease?
Jesus continued: “The hour is coming, and it is now, when the true worshippers will worship the Father with spirit and truth, for indeed, the Father is looking for ones like these to worship him.” (John 4:23) For centuries, the Jews viewed the magnificent temple in Jerusalem as the center of their worship. They journeyed there three times a year to make sacrifices to their God, Jehovah. (Exodus 23:14-17) But Jesus said that all of this would be changed and that “true worshippers” would worship “with spirit and truth.”
The Jewish temple was a tangible structure at a specific geographic location. But spirit and truth are not material, nor are they limited to any physical place. Thus, Jesus was explaining that true Christian worship would not be centered in or dependent on any material structure or physical location, whether Mount Gerizim, the temple in Jerusalem, or any other sacred place.
In his conversation with the Samaritan woman, Jesus also mentioned that “the hour” for this change in God’s worship was “coming.” When would that be? The hour came when Jesus, by his sacrificial death, ended the Jewish system of worship based on the Law of Moses. (Romans 10:4) Yet, Jesus also said: “The hour . . . is now.” Why? Because as the Messiah, he was already gathering disciples who would obey the command he stated next: “God is a Spirit, and those worshipping him must worship with spirit and truth.” (John 4:24) What, then, does it mean to worship with spirit and truth?
When Jesus mentioned worshipping with spirit, he was not speaking of a particularly spirited, animated, or enthusiastic form of worship. Rather, he was talking about being guided by God’s holy spirit, which among other things guides our understanding of the Scriptures. (1 Corinthians 2:9-12) And the truth Jesus referred to is an accurate knowledge of Bible teachings. Therefore, rather than being rendered at any special place, our worship will be acceptable to God if it conforms to what the Bible teaches and is guided by the holy spirit.
THE CHRISTIAN VIEW OF SHRINES
How, then, should Christians view pilgrimages to and worship at shrines? Taking into account Jesus’ command that true worshippers worship God with spirit and truth, it is clear that worship rendered at any shrine or sacred place has no special value to our heavenly Father. Additionally, the Bible tells us how God views the veneration of idols in worship. It says: “Flee from idolatry” and “guard yourselves from idols.” (1 Corinthians 10:14; 1 John 5:21) Therefore, a true Christian would not worship at any place that is viewed as holy in itself or one that encourages idolatry. Thus, on account of the very nature of shrines, true Christians refrain from worshipping at them.
This, however, does not mean that God’s Word forbids having a preferred location for prayer, study, or meditation. A meeting place that is orderly and dignified is conducive to learning and discussing spiritual things. Neither is it wrong to make a memorial, such as a tombstone, for a deceased person. This may simply be an expression of remembrance or affection for the deceased. However, considering such a location as a holy place or venerating images or relics there would be completely contrary to Jesus’ words.
Therefore, you do not need to go to a shrine in hopes that God is more likely to hear your prayer there. Nor will God be pleased with you or give you special blessings for making a pilgrimage to a shrine. The Bible tells us that Jehovah God, the “Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in handmade temples.” But this does not make God distant from us. We can pray to him and be heard anywhere because “he is not far off from each one of us.”