What a Good “Liturgy” Does (Or, Why We Shouldn’t Pit “Form” Against “Content”)

I’ve been writing for a bit now on how worship–specifically, corporate worship– forms us as the people of God. The central idea of my short new book, Discover the Mystery of Faith, is that worship is not simply an expression of our faith; it is what forms it. What’s at stake in our decisions about Sunday services are not simply matters of “programming” the service or attracting the lost. In fact, this claim moves the conversation beyond the matters of style– rock, folk, organ, etc– to matter of form and substance.

While my writing on this has explored– non-academically– the historical-theology roots of this claim, there is a far weightier voice in the conversation (thank God!) who has taken this up from the philosophical anthropology side and set it in “conversation” with an Augustinian theology (all big words I’m not qualified to use!) of love. His name is James K. A. Smith. His core claim is that a “liturgy” (used broadly as a ritual, communal, embodied practice) shapes and aims our love at a particular vision of the good life.

Here is an excerpt from a recent interview with Trevin Wax over at The Gospel Coalition:
*(all highlights and bolds are my notes for emphasis)

Trevin Wax: You speak of the power of a liturgy in terms of what is caught, not just explicitly taught. How does this truth influence the way we conceive of worship services?

James K. A. Smith: A core claim and outcome of Imagining the Kingdom is to help evangelicals see that we have bought into a reductionistic view of worship. When we say “worship,” many of us just think “music” or “singing,” which is already a reduction of historic understandings of worship that comprise the entire service.

But more generally, we have also largely reduced worship to “expression.” We have focused only on the “upward” movement of worship as our sacrifice of praise, which is probably why the grammar of so many contemporary worship choruses actually sing about us (“Here I am to worship…”).

Now clearly our expression of praise to God is part of worship, but it is not the whole of worship. In fact, the primary actor or agent in Christian worship is not us but God.

So historically, worship has been seen as not only expressive, but also formative. When the people of God are gathered by God around his Word and seated at his Table, that sanctuary is the space where God is molding and (re)making us. In that sense, worship is training, is formation.

As I argue in the final chapter of the book, if worship is going to be formative, that means we need to think carefully and intentionally about the form of worship. Not the “style” (this isn’t about pipe organs vs. mandolins), but the narrative form of the Story that is enacted in our communal worship.

Trevin Wax: How would you respond to the person who says the forms of worship are interchangeable, but the message must always remain constant? While admitting there is flexibility in forms from culture to culture, I think you’d want to push against the idea that the forms don’t matter.

James K. A. Smith: Absolutely. I think we buy into a form/content distinction precisely because we’ve reduced the Gospel to a “message.” So then we think we can just distill that “message” (the content) and then drop it into any “form” we want.

But as I argue in the book, forms are not neutral. Indeed, that was one of the core arguments of the first volume, Desiring the Kingdom: cultural practices that we might think are “neutral” – just something that we do – are actually doing something to us. They are formative. But what they form is our heart-habits, our loves and longings that, as we’ve already mentioned, actually drive our action and behavior.

So you can’t just go pick some “popular” cultural form and insert the Gospel “message” and think you have thereby come up with “relevant” worship. Because it’s more likely that you’ve just imported a secular liturgy into Christian worship. Sure, you might have changed the content, but the very form of the practice is training us to love some other vision of the good life. This is why I think a lot of innovation in worship, while well-intentioned, actually ends up welcoming Trojan horses into the sanctuary.

The response is not to come up with “the next best thing” in worship. It is to find new appreciation for historic Christian wisdom about the form of worship for the sake of discipleship. That’s the core argument of Imagining the Kingdom.


Points For Reflection:

1. How can we be more thoughtful about the forms– not styles or methods– that we employ in our church services?

2. What “vision of the good life” do the dominant forms  of our day– the mall and the arean (concert or sports) aim our love towards? Individual celebrities? Excitement? Adrenaline rushes? Enterntainment? Consumption?

3. Have we adopted some forms of our day without realizing how they are inadvertantly aiming our love at a different vision of the good life than what Jesus displayed? In what way is this like taking in a “Trojan Horse”, undermining the very discipleship we’re trying to achieve?


Related Reading:

“How Worship Forms Us”

“What’s So Great About the Past?”

Who is Church? Pt. 2

2 thoughts on “What a Good “Liturgy” Does (Or, Why We Shouldn’t Pit “Form” Against “Content”)

  1. 1. I think #1 would be concerning not the address of the audience, but the address of God in the service. When and how are the Persons of the Trinity invited in our midst, when and how are they identified, when and how are they recognized, when and how are they petitioned, when and how are they thanked, and when and how they are acknowledged in dismissal and commission out into the world? Related, I wonder about the meaning and meaningfulness of how the bread and the cup are handled from beginning to end. How does that form relate to how we should we model the recognition of, acceptance of, identity with, and intertwined Presence of Christ in our lives?
    2. The mall and the arena are interesting areas of study. Would love to read a Smith write-up on the liturgy of the mobile phone or the liturgy of the laptop and how online sessions have a hidden beginning, middle, and end and how other elements of unseen ritual in these new experiences further revealing how what we do relates to what we love.
    3. There seems to be something in us–perhaps something of the Imageo Deo that has escaped the Fall’s curse–that seems to detect and despise the spiritually inauthentic wrapped in the clothes and the forms of religious language. Recent technological innovations and social communications allow insincerity, power trips, moral failures, financial scandals, abuses, and all manner of general duplicity in institutional leadership to become nakedly exposed like never before. And while soundbites get decontextualized and often memes run away based more upon stereotype than the facts on the ground, optimistically it may be that the Jesus way *only* that can withstand the critique of what the good life is and can be.
    Furthermore, beyond the defensive orientation and consideration of the desacralizing Trojan Horse of syncretic perversion assaulting the sacred content and forms of the Church, how can we consider a Church’s counteroffensive, that of being vessels of the Trojan Horse of the Incarnation? How can we bearers of a new way of self-sacrificial giving and living brought forth into a broken, hurting world?
    Can we hear around us the eager expectations’ groaning for the inevitable?
    Historically, the Church has been so bold, intentional, and hopeful as to consider the forms and substance of the liturgy to foreshadow the Lamb’s Supper.
    Rev 4.
    And his mercy is from generation unto generations,
    to them that fear him.
    He hath shewed might in his arm:
    he hath scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart.
    He hath put down the mighty from their seat,
    and hath exalted the humble.
    He hath filled the hungry with good things;
    and the rich he hath sent empty away.
    Blessed are the poor in spirit, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to them.


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