Despite being a lifelong churchgoer, I was a young adult the first time I heard the word “liturgy.” Such “high church” concepts and terminology were eschewed in the Southern Baptist context in which I was raised, thus my first exposure to such terms and practices came when I began to be hired as an occasional extra musician in a variety of churches, including mainline churches with more formal services (and more liberal theology, but I digress). In time, I learned that “liturgy” is simply a word for “order of service” or “how we do worship.” It’s not really a “fancy” term; in fact, as a single word it’s more economical than those other expressions. Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate not only the term but the importance of liturgy for spiritual formation.
But I didn’t get there immediately. The Reformed tradition, whose understanding of scripture I embraced as a young adult, places the highest priority upon the Word of God, particularly the Word of God preached. Thus my primary concern when, for example, choosing a church to attend, was the quality and content of the preaching. Liturgy was important, but far less so. While I still believe preaching to be of central importance in the worship service, the content and structure of the rest of the service must not be neglected. In some ways, they might even be more formative than the preaching.
In recent years I’ve become somewhat familiar with the work of James K.A. Smith (b. 1970), a professor of philosophy at Calvin College. While Smith is a Reformed thinker, his writing sometimes goes against the Reformed tendency to think of spiritual formation as an entirely intellectual exercise. In his book You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit he writes
It is crucial for us to recognize that our ultimate loves, longings, desires, and cravings are learned. And because love is a habit, our hearts are calibrated through imitating exemplars and being immersed in practices that, over time, index our hearts to a certain end. We learn to love, then, not primarily by acquiring information about what we should love but rather through practices that form the habits of how we love. (20)
While it would be a misreading of Smith to say that he totally discounts the importance of information, he clearly—and rightly, I think—believes that information alone, without accompanying and reinforcing habits and practices, ultimately does not form us. In this and other works he uses what he calls “cultural liturgies” as examples; a favorite of mine is the “liturgy of the shopping mall,” where through practice and repetition people learn and become habituated to the practices and mores of commerce. People learn how to behave at the mall not by receiving verbal or written instructions, but by observation, emulation, and repetition.
If observation, emulation, repetition, and thus habituation are how our loves are formed and directed, it makes sense that our religious practices should make use of this trait of human nature. Yet in so much of evangelicalism the trend in worship practices—in liturgy—is to prize innovation, not repetition. There must be new songs, new décor, new lighting, new dress, new preaching, even new elements in the worship service, all in an apparent attempt to draw crowds with the allure of the new. If Smith is right, the problem with this is obvious: these churches are robbing their congregants of the formative power of habit by never allowing there to be a necessary sameness in worship. Even if the preaching in such churches is of the highest doctrinal and oratorical quality, the liturgical instability creates a problem for spiritual growth and formation.
So what do we do with this understanding? At the very least, we should take steps to craft worship services that are marked by repetition and habituation, not innovation. I am so thankful that at the church we attend the services are basically the same every week. There will be a call to worship, hymn, prayer, the Apostles’ Creed, corporate confession of sin and assurance of pardon, offertory, children’s sermon, hymn, Old Testament reading, New Testament reading, hymn, and benediction. Once monthly the order is modified slightly to accommodate communion and the Nicene Creed is recited instead of the Apostles’ Creed. No innovation. Repetition. Habituation. Formation. I am thankful to worship in a place like this.
While my thinking is really focused upon the worship service at the moment, it is worth noting that this importance of habit extends to other areas of life. Every parent realizes in time that children learn much more by what they observe and do than what they are told. The same is true, really, of adults. By all means, let us read, study, and learn the best information we can, first in scripture and then in other areas of knowledge. But let’s not pretend that we are formed primarily by information—we are not “brains-on-a-stick,” as Smith would say. Rather, our loves and desires are formed not just by what we think, but by what we do. So let us make sure that our doing orients us and our families to the true, the good, and the beautiful, and ultimately to the One who is the only rightful primary object of our love.