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Church, Liturgy and Formation

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This is a reflection I wrote for my theology of culture class. For those who have journeyed with me the past 8 or so months, you may smile as you read this as I have deeply questioned ‘church’ from every direction. The books (see footnotes) in this course have been really helpful in thinking through this – what does it mean to go to church? why should one go to church? what does it mean to follow Christ in the world today?

Church, Liturgy and Formation

Introduction

I am a Children’s Ministry Director. My task is daunting: I am one of a few people who show up any given Sunday who is under the age of fifty. The parish I work with and for is located in an area that is overflowing with families and yet, I count it a “good” Sunday if we manage to have two children for Sunday School. More often than I would like, I am a well-paid usher earnestly striving to avoid the inevitable weekly question: “any customers today?”

With ‘evangelical’1 roots, Scripture and prayer are foundational to my life and I have come to love and yearn for a deep rootedness in the history and tradition of the Christian church in my adult years. I am, perhaps, a fish out of water. This church, however, has been formational to me with services that mark the story of Christ’s coming, life, death, resurrection and coming again through music and ritual in a way I have not experienced in any other church.

It is with this context and my charge as Children’s Ministry Director that I interact with the readings for this course. These readings have challenged me to think about how I live my life and what I want to impart on the children and families under my charge. And yet, they leave open some very real questions of how one teaches the way of Christ when one is not “preaching to the choir”.

 

Right Thinking vs. Right Loving

Christian education often seeks to provide correct theological thinking. Catechisms answer questions about faith and those not indoctrinated through some catechismal process, such as myself, are often taught to prepare an answer in defence should anyone seek to question them. There is an emphasis on right thinking.

Theology, to use Wendell Berry’s thinking, is a human construct.2 I may be able to put together a well-articulated doctrine of the Trinity, or formulate an answer to the problem of evil and suffering in the world. All articulations necessarily fit within our human understanding, which is rather limited in comparison to a God whose “thoughts are higher than my thoughts” (Isaiah 55:9). As James K.A. Smith points out, “The people of God called out (ek-klēsia) to be the church were worshiping long before they got all their doctrines in order or articulated the elements of a Christian worldview; and they were engaged in and developing worship practices long before what we now call our Bible emerged and was solidified, so to speak.”3 There may be value in such formulations. However, unless these beliefs and right thinking penetrate my heart in such a way that my life devoted to loving God and my neighbour more, right thinking holds limited value (e.g. 1 Corinthians 13). Doctrine does not necessarily translate into transformation.

Smith argues that Christian education needs to primarily be about formation not doctrine.4 That is, Christian education needs to be more about right living and right loving, and less about right thinking. He argues that we are primarily lovers and not thinkers. We order our lives according to the things that we love, rather than our beliefs.5 One does not need to look beyond their own life to realize the countless times they have failed to live according to the way of life they espouse! Our habits and routines speak to our desires and affections. I make sure that I always have a book with me to utilize spare moments. This speaks to my love of ideas, love of reading and love of learning. I am also typically accompanied by a warm cup of coffee which speaks of my addiction to caffeine, need to consume and the need to accomplish everything, even at the expense of sleep.

 

Church as Formation

The rhythm of church6 is a reflection of what one desires in life as well as deeply formational. I order my week and tasks to allow for Sunday morning to be free. I plan Saturday nights to allow for enough sleep for the early start the following day. The weekly Eucharist reminds me of Christ’s call to remember His love for me and to bring my whole self to him in response. I have conversations after the service that inspire or encourage me to step back into the world outside this beautiful building. Often there will be a song, a word, or a prayer that stays with me. Week after week, this practice shapes me as Smith aptly argues.7 Now that Church is a part of my job, much of my week is even more focused around getting ready and time is marked each week by this communal gathering.

Faith is not a mere intellectual activity, but an embodied activity.8 Smith claims, “liturgy is a […] pedagogy that trains us as disciples precisely by putting our bodies through a regimen of repeated practices that get hold of our heart and ‘aim’ our love toward the kingdom of God.”9 He articulates the beauty of liturgical traditions10 in re-enacting the story of our faith through the various senses that involve our whole bodies (e.g. Kneeling, offering a sign of peace, incense, eating the bread and wine). Moreover, these embodied activities are undertaken as a community11 and thus offer a much needed re-formation to counteract the individualistic attitude that pervades much of our society.12 In this re-formation, Smith provides an answer to Andy Crouch’s claim that we should not merely criticize or withdraw from culture. Culture is what we, as human beings, do.13 We create stories, art, churches and shopping malls. In the Eucharist service, we remember when Jesus hallowed human cultural artifacts (bread and wine).14 Crouch highlights several instances in which God interacts with culture in a way that brings creative redemption even when human beings have used their ability to create to turn away from God and one another.15

One of the advantages of approaching Christian education as primarily formation is that it is accessible to everyone, including children and those with any type of intellectual challenges.16 I lived in an intentional community and for the better part of a year, twin toddlers came every morning to pray in the chapel and every week took part in the Eucharistic feast. It was a beautiful surprise to hear them speak the words of the Lord’s Prayer or the Sanctus, often belting it loudly in situations that were not particularly prayerful settings.

There is a place for thinking and reason – indeed, these are gifts from God that need to be exercised with wisdom and humility. I am who I am partly because I have made my books my close companions and looked to them to find answers to my questions about faith, life and where to find myself. However, Smith hits the nail on the head when he claims that re-enacting the story can impact us in ways that words alone can.17 Last year, my community nailed to a cross our sin and pain and then covered them with a black cloth and walked into the rainy outside in silence. For a moment, I was able to experience and not just think about what Christ did for us on the cross.

Smith claims that such formation happens at a pre-reflective level, meaning that we do not have to think – or reflect – in order to participate in the story of faith or to be formed at some level. Reflection can expand on our experience and draw us into faithful living. I think this speaks to the idea Crouch emphasizes – that we are to be culture makers, but it is God who makes culture, not us.18 For a children’s ministry director such as myself, this is good news! I am thankful that I can encourage the children to participate in the mystery of faith and trust in a God who orchestrates more beauty and meaning into life than I ever could!

 

Becoming Who We Fully Are

Both Crouch and Smith make the claim that when we orient our lives towards God – when we cultivate practices and participate in rituals that draw us into God’s story of redemption for the world – we become who we are truly meant to be. Crouch claims that we are fundamentally culture makers. This becoming our true selves is communal and speaks of culture becoming a creative flourishing that cultivates and adds beauty to the world God has granted us.19 He writes, “Cultural goods too will be transformed and redeemed, yet they will be recognizably what they were in the old creation – or perhaps more accurately, they will be what they always could have been.”20 As humans, we mess up and create a culture of slavery and bondage to many idols. Yet, God redeems even the mess we make of the world and breathes life and beauty into what our waywardness has attempted to destroy. Smith claims that we are fundamentally lovers. We are fully human when we are people who love rightly: “who love God and neighbour and [are] oriented to the world by the primacy of that love.”21 As Augustine famously noted, we are restless until we find ourselves resting in God.22

Smith’s focus on formation has challenged me to think of teaching Scripture with the same focus. That is, to teach the lessons in Scripture and in the liturgical tradition in such a way as to encourage children embodying the story of faith and to love the One who can truly satisfy their desire. Perhaps this is the best approach with a group of people who show up once in awhile at best. Moreover, as I model the formative role God, faith, Scripture, music and tradition can have in ordering my priorities, routines and habits, perhaps those who are watching will yearn for this way of life.

 

Where Do we Begin?

The readings for this course so far leaving me with some very practical questions. How does Christian education be formative when ‘church’ is not central, or even important, in people’s lives today? Where do we begin with practices and pedagogy aimed at formation when the church is becoming increasingly marginalized? Smith is ‘preaching to the choir’ – which, in many parishes, is comprised of paid professionals recruited by the church and are among the most regular attendees. He writes, “We go through the ritual of desiring the kingdom – a kind of holy impatience.”23 Smith’s very articulate discussion of routines, habits and their formational role assumes that church and faith is important, if not a priority, in people’s lives. For many of the people, the shopping mall is their primary religious institution and television is the cultural artifact they pledge alliance to. And people generally in society are quite comfortable with the practices of consumption. The “holy impatience” for Christ’s kingdom seems to be lacking, even in the church.

Maybe this is where Crouch’s distinction between being culture makers and creating culture can provide hope in this context. While we are to engage in culture making activities, it is God who creates culture. Likewise, while I can engage in formational activities, it is God who forms hearts and minds. I am called to love God with my heart, soul and mind and this naturally feeds into the command to love my neighbour. I can strive to orient my life towards God, allowing the routines and rituals of the church and faith tradition to form who I am and to become more who I am made to be. I can cultivate practices and create opportunities for others to partake. But it is God who transforms hearts. With that assurance, I can breathe a heavy sigh of relief, pray, and carry on with next week’s Sunday School lesson.

 

1I use ‘evangelical’ with fear and trepidation as it is a term that is so often void of meaning or loaded with meaning. Still, my background is in churches of a certain bent that frequently fall under the category of “evangelical” (e.g. Baptist, Salvation Army).

2Berry, Wendell. Citizenship Papers (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2003), pgs. 40-41.

3Smith, James K.A. Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), pg.135

4Smith, pg. 26

5Smith, pg. 109

6In the interest of space, I am limiting my discussion of ‘church’ to that thing we do on Sundays with other believers at a particular time in a particular place. This, of course, is a huge limitation and assumption. ‘Church’ can and should spill into our daily lives if it truly is formational.

7Smith, pg. 160

8Smith, pg. 47

9Smith, pg. 33

10Again, I hesitate to use a label to refer to a group of churches. Smith unpacks the meaning of ‘liturgy’ and rightly makes the arguments that all churches have a liturgical rhythm – a pattern of routines and habits – whether they follow a written prayer book or not. I use ‘liturgical’ here to refer to churches that use a prayer book, follow the church calendar, and whose routines and patterns are deeply rooted in tradition and history (e.g. Anglican, Catholic). Smith also claims (pg. 157) that traditions that do not involve the various components and sacraments that he fleshes out are missing out on something integral to the Christian Faith. Having grown up in traditions that thoughtfully argue otherwise, I am not prepared to make this claim.

11Smith, pg. 62

12Smith, pg. 103

13Crouch, Andy. Culture Making: Recovering our Creative Calling (Downers: InterVarsity Press, 2008), pg. 20

14Smith, pg. 199

15Crouch, pg. 117

16Smith, pg 136

17Smith, pg. 137

18Crouch, pg. 201

19Crouch, pg. 73

20Crouch, pg. 169

21Crouch, pg. 33

22Smith, pg. 125

23Smith, pg. 157

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