It is definitely possible to connect to the Lord without Pooja. But lets understand what is the significance of a pooja for a vedantic student:
A. Senses are extrovert and fickle. To withdraw the mind from the senses and focus on japa etc is not easy. We need to master the senses for it. Pooja provides an opportunity to engage the senses and also divinise them. We see HIS form, chant HIS name, offer flowers, naivedya to HIM, Listen to HIS glories etc. Walking to the temple, cleaning it, preparing it etc also train the senses and the mind.
B. most of us complain that our mind wanders in japa or meditation. A person who has done pooja learns concentration, visualisation because one constantly keeps one form in the mind and does the offerings. For children especially its very effective.
C. Integration also happens because Body, Mind & Intellect(BMI) come together.
D. Develops a relationship with the Lord and channelise emotions through it. Hanuman looked upon Ram as the Lord. Ramakrishna as a mother. Meera as a beloved. Surdas as a friend. Whats my relationship with HIM i should find out and invoke love. When there is love we want to give. Pooja is giving what HE likes. Hence we say offer bilva, abhisheka, bhasma to shiva. Offer alankaar and lotus to vishnu. Offer kumkum to devi etc. Ofcourse it has symbolism too.
E. From physical pooja to maanas pooja to japa to meditation. This is the order of progress. Try it and you will see the difference.
F. Pooja is not a mechanical ritual. Its an expression of love and gratitude. One may say i can do that without pooja also. Fine. But the asana-siddhi, manah-shuddhi, sukhshma-buddhi and antarmukhi drishti that Pooja brings is unique.
G. Mantras have their own powers and when chanted with meaning it prepares us for contemplation.
H. To do a Pooja one has to live life in discipline and self-control. One cannot be indulgent and immoral and benefit from Pooja. It applies to all the spiritual practices. But rules for Pooja are simpler than for japa and meditation etc.
K. Even if i dont know the meaning but if i do the pooja it will make me think- who is the Lord? Why should i worship? How? Etc. That itself is progress. Devotion arises.
L. Whole day i think about myself. Pooja is a time to ask what does HE like? What can i offer HIM?
M. I become more open to God's Grace
N. Sattvik actions help us to earn punya and punya brings satsang in our life. Pooja is one of the most sattvik actions whether done knowingly or unknowingly.
O. When devotion grows then only one goes beyond steps and becomes spontaneous. Without following the steps of Pooja, how can i be spontaneous? This applies in arts, science, martial arts, sports etc. One follows the rules/technique and then goes beyond into the zone of innovation or spontaneity.
P. Pooja of a form is only a beginning. Slowly the same bhaav extends to all actions and whole world becomes our altar of worship.
Its not the Pooja thats the problem actually. Its our lack of faith in the form, in pooja's effectiveness, our incapacity to submit ourselves to discipline and our belief that as an intellectual im not the -'Pooja-type'.
Lets put aside the intellectual skepticism and attempt Pooja to purify the mind. Start small and grow big.