How Liturgy Forms the People of God
Liturgy is the way we learn to put on Christ.
-James K.A. Smith
What is Liturgy?
While this may be a simplistic definition, we can think of liturgy as any sort of routine that shapes our hearts. I would argue then, that any routine at all is liturgy, because any routine is heart-shaping. Many say that what we think and feel affects what we do. This is incredibly true, but it is also true the other way around. As Matthew Lee Anderson says, “We are also changed from the outside in.” What we do affects what we think and feel. Liturgy is inherently formative. This makes it worth exploring and considering.
We Live Liturgical Lives
Any sort of routine you and I have in our daily lives is a form of liturgy. Tish Harrison Warren writes in Liturgy of the Ordinary, “the crucible of our formation is in the monotony of our daily routines.” If we look at our phone the very first thing in the morning (which I am incredibly guilty of), we tell ourselves the message that the world will fall apart if we are not informed and connected. If we watch a romantic movie every single day, we tell ourselves that the only way to happiness is to be in love. The list goes on and on. Whether we realize it or not, our routines shape us. Lauren Winner discusses her practice of fasting every Wednesday and she writes,
Both moments of obedience and disobedience shape us. When I say no to the mac and cheese that I want, I learn a little bit more that my desires are not in charge. This shapes me.
Our liturgical lives are the same way, and every moment of obedience and disobedience shapes us little by little.
Liturgy and Participation
Liturgy also reminds us that worship is not about us and our comfort. By us, the congregation, having to stand up, sit down, read the call to worship, and more, we are reminded that worship is not about us. Worship shapes us, but it is not directed at us. It is so easy to come into a worship service as a consumer of feelings. However, we are called to come to church in order to ascribe glory to Christ. By having to stand up, sit down, and participate in more ways than just singing, we not only let the liturgy seep into our hearts more by means of participation, but we are reminded (whether consciously or subconsciously) that worship is not about our comfort or entertainment, but about God.
Liturgy and Our Feelings
I do not mean to say that worship does not affect or shape us, or that it cannot result in feelings of deep connection. Worship indeed should feed and nourish our souls, but it becomes problematic when we go to worship for the sake of an emotional high. However, we have tended to make an effect that worship can have into the ultimate goal. This puts our preferences on the throne instead of God. We need to remember that He is the one on the throne, and that we were ultimately made as beings to worship him. The Westminster Catechism asks, “What is the chief end of man?” with the answer “to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”
Our chief end is to glorify and enjoy God. This act of glorifying Him can result in deep feelings of connection and joy, but if we try to side step the purpose of worship in pursuit of feelings alone, we have missed the point. Right worship is for God, and as our hearts continue to be shaped by the liturgy of our service, our hearts continue to be put in the way of experiencing and feeling His love and His delight in us. We were made to be worshippers, so ascribing glory to God can lead us to feeling deeper connection with Him. C.S. Lewis writes,
I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation.
We are liturgical beings, and we are feeling beings. These are not mutually exclusive, and they in fact go quite hand in hand. God made us to have feelings. God made us to experience him. And liturgy can be a beautiful avenue to put ourselves in the way of experiencing him in an emotional way. The problem comes not when we feel or when we don’t feel, the problem comes when we approach worship as the pursuit of feelings. In his book, Union with Christ, Rankin Wilbourne captures this beautifully when he describes “the doldrums,” times when we don’t feel or experience God. He writes:
When you remember that you are not looking for an experience (which may or may not come) but communing with God who is always there; when you remember that there will be doldrums, then you can be assured that the most important times of meditation and prayer, worship, and community may in fact be the times you enjoy them the least. Take heart.
Wilbourne is on to something so important. Feeling is a part of life, and feelings are good gifts from God, and not things to ignore. But, if we enter into worship and liturgy in pursuit of certain feelings, worship will be largely unpredictable, because our feelings often change. If we go into worship in pursuit of marveling at a God who never changes, we then see that God is worthy of our praise no matter where our feelings are that day, and that worshipping God even when we don’t feel like can at times have an effect on how we felt going into worship. Charles Spurgeon writes,
Sometimes, if you begin to sing in a halfhearted mood, you can sing yourself up the ladder. Singing will often make the heart rise.
This is not guaranteed, and should not be the end of worship in itself, but it is also not out of the question. We bring our feelings and our worries into worship, and God is faithful to do with them what he wills. Bringing our feelings (or lack of feelings) to worship helps us reframe them in light of God’s faithfulness.
Liturgy and our Heart
In his book, You Are What You Love, James K.A. Smith writes,
Worship works from the top down, you might say. In worship we don’t just come to show God our devotion and give him our praise; we are called to worship because in this encounter God (re)makes and molds us top-down. Worship is the arena in which God recalibrates our hearts, reforms our desires, and rehabituates our loves. Worship isn’t just something we do; it is where God does something to us. Worship is the heart of discipleship because it is the gymnasium in which God retrains our hearts.
Because our lives are liturgical and because liturgy shapes us, our worship services can serve as a training ground for how we live out our week and how we shape the liturgy of our lives. Nick McDonald, the RUF pastor at the University of Missouri says, “If you don’t feel Christianity, do Christianity.” Our worship services can be a way to do just that. We walk into church and the liturgy has been shaped for us, and God can use that in radical ways. Not only is worship not about us, but worship forms us.
So we need to take it seriously and be discerning when it comes to how our church thinks about liturgy. We need to be walked through the gospel truth (and participate in it) every week. Our hearts need to be shaped by it and feel it. We need something to model, and we need to be asking the question, “How can I put myself in the way of being shaped and sanctified by how I form my routine. We need to take hold of what forms our hearts.
Authenticity vs. Liturgy
Many Christians struggle with wanting to flee from legalism. This fear is not a wrong one, but it can easily be taken to the extreme. Christians often do not read their Bibles, or form some sort of routine for getting in the word because they do not want to “offer up empty sacrifices.” Again, this fear is not inherently wrong, but what we must remember is that our routine affects our hearts. What may start off as unexcited routine can become rich time of intimacy with God.
It is also important to remember that if the liturgy of your day does not include time with God, it will include something else. You can’t escape liturgy, and there’s no such thing as “neutral time.” Our routine is always shaping us, so let us do our best to shape our liturgies to point us to Christ.
Because liturgy is formative, let us embrace routine with excitement and thoughtfulness. We are changed from the outside in, and because of this, we must look seriously at what we do in both our worship services and our lives. We must not only examine our actions but also the effects that our actions have on our hearts. In this we will embrace that God has made us liturgical beings: people of habit that are shaped from the outside in as well as the inside out.