If you’ve been around this blog or read or listened to much of anything I’ve been interested in over the last few years, you’d know that I’m a fan of robust, historic Christian worship. At Trinity, we follow a very traditional liturgy in our worship, we sing historic hymns and psalms and canticles and chants, and we have a hearty appreciation for the Church calendar, celebrating the major feasts and fasts of the Christian year as our fathers before us.
This means that many of our prayers are set and remain the same for many months of the year, many songs and pieces of service music remain unchanged, and we perform the same actions and speak scripted responses to one another Sunday after Sunday. And there are good reasons for this:
First, we believe it shows honor to our fathers and mothers in the faith, praying their prayers and singing their songs, and recognizes substantively that we have come into the middle of a conversation, or better, into the middle of a great dance that began centuries ago. We are part of something much, much bigger than our congregation here in Idaho at the beginning of the third millennium. But secondly, we also believe that it is formative and pedagogical. Similar to some of the aspects of classical education, some of the most important lessons we learn are learned through ingrained habits and ritualized repetition. This is also a standing objection to the frequent assumption in the modern church that only that which is spontaneous is genuine. Or the converse, which is highly skeptical of ritual, repetition, or scripting anything — even though the most non-liturgical churches still develop patterns, habits, and traditions. Finally, like many other treasured traditions (Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter, etc.), the repetition grows in glory and loveliness over time. It may seem awkward to say, “The Lord be with/And with your spirit” or “The peace of the Lord be with you/and also with you” at first, but over time, as we learn this language of the Church, the language of the Spirit, those words take on the love and joy of “Merry Christmas!” and “Christ is risen/He is risen indeed!” We believe that God meets us in worship by His Spirit and through the forms and words and prayers and rituals, is forming and re-forming us His people into a new humanity. And just as you might say in a generic way, America is a “Christmas and Easter” culture — which actually describes our Christian devotion in all of its shallow, non-committal glory quite well — the ultimate aim is for the whole of our worship and devotion to Jesus to fill our lives throughout our days and years.
But in our eagerness to recover the treasures of the past, in our eagerness to ditch the shallow spontaneity of the modern church (because it’s hard for most people to be brilliant and deep on the fly), we must watch out for the ditches we are veering toward. In other words, we probably aren’t in danger of having our congregation doing hand motions in the aisles to Father Abraham or This Little Light of Mine. But when you’ve grown weary and frustrated with that kind of ridiculous, it is sometimes tempting to send all the troops to that side of the battlefield when it’s actually probably the least vulnerable position on the field.
One danger we face is what might be called formalism or ritualism, but we need to define this carefully. Received rightly, godly tradition, godly ritual, Christ-honoring form ought to be an occasion for the Spirit to carve the likeness of Jesus into us and into our children. And that likeness should be recognizable, striking, and drive us to love our neighbors, drive us to mission and ministry to those who are hurting, those in need. But there is a key middle step in the process, which is frequently hard to distinguish from its counterfeits. That key middle step is an authentic, Spirit-filled walk with God. And we really do struggle with words at this point because God is free to meet us in a plethora of ways, and sometimes we really only notice what was actually going on in the rear view mirror. It might be during a sermon, it might be at a baptism, it might be during the liturgy, it might be in a Bible study, it might be when your parents confront you about sin in your life, in might be when your wife tells you she slept with another man, it might be when you confess your long standing porn habit to your wife, it might be when your child dies unexpectedly, or in a quiet moment driving alone in the car. And most likely it’s at millions of tiny points in our lives that we don’t even realize. God is free to meet us, to manifest His power and presence to us in many different ways, but we must insist that this happen. Dead religion, stale tradition is the easiest thing to produce; it springs up like ugly on Lady Gaga.
The ditch of formalism or ritualism is mistaking the lively, overpowering, gracious presence of God for being absolutely synonymous with His gifts. He comes to us in His word, He comes to us in the sacraments and prayers, He comes to us in song, He comes to us in brothers and spouses and pastors, He comes to us in the quiet moments and in the gut-wrenching crises, but we do not hold Him in those events, we do not arrange for Him to arrive. We do not “plan” for Him. We do not schedule a time for God to meet us and then expect God to be constrained by our Google calendars. God is graciously free to answer our prayers, and He is good to keep His promises and to be present where and when He has promised. But God is not exhaustively synonymous with our liturgies, with our forms, even with His word or His sacraments. His gifts are His gifts, and they are always from Him. But the Spirit is not bound, and God seeks worshipers who worship in Spirit and in truth.
In every tradition, the sign of the Spirit’s absence is the fact that people’s lives are unchanged, unaffected, untransformed by the powerful working of the Spirit of God and worldliness creeps in. If we want to avoid the ditch of formalism and ritualism, there must be “tests” for us, regular test drives, performances (if you will) to see if the lessons are actually being learned. When we fill a service with the words of a preacher or many little words of songs and prayers and actions, this can be a fantastic opportunity, it can be like eating at a posh restaurant with so many delicacies to choose from. But if we take our congregations to the Ritz every Lord’s Day, we should want to know whether it is actually doing what we pray it is doing. And faithful shepherds should look for that fruit in transformed lives, in abounding fruitfulness, in unexpected grace. It is not enough to have a solid biblical theology of worship. It’s not enough to draw the formula up on the board and explain that the Spirit in fact must be present. That’s like explaining how the parachute works in midair, racing to the ground and insisting that therefore there must be one on your back. But is there? Yes, that is how the Spirit works, but is the Spirit actually there with you?