Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Contemporary Ritualism

One of my first significant steps out of the Plymouth Brethren, Bible Church background of my youth was a visit to an Evangelical Covenant church when I was living in New Hampshire. A co-worker attended there, and asked me to go with her one Sunday, in order to sing and play guitar on a couple of numbers during the service. It was a bit foreign to me, particularly due to the carefully laid-out order of worship. In a later conversation with the chaplain of the ministry I was working at, the chaplain asked me what I thought of the service. "It was okay," I said, "except for the liturgy." "Everybody has a liturgy, even the Plymouth Brethren," he said. Looking at his watch and pretending he was in a Brethren worship service, he said, "Brother Bob should be standing up in three, two, one, and there he goes," referring to a man standing to lead the congregation, presumably spontaneously led by the Holy Spirit. I realized how right he was. Though the attempt is to be spontaneous, that can only be achieved to a degree. God made man to be a creature of habit, of ritual, of liturgy. This is a good thing, and we naturally look to create order in every aspect of life. Even the free-form approach of the Brethren has a certain structure - at a certain time the meeting begins, it ends at a certain time, the bread and the cup are distributed at a certain point, and so on. If spontaneity were a sign of genuine worship, why can't this order also be counted as "stifling the Spirit"? The truth is that, far from a Biblical notion of true worship, this spontaneity finds its roots in Revivalism and 19th century Romanticism, and not Scripture. God is a God of order, and to assert that structure is somehow unspiritual is contrary to the Bible. Yet the idea continues to be propagated in contemporary circles. A contemporary church can cry out against rituals and yet have a specific order of worship every Sunday. Every contemporary church, if it really is a church, observes the Christian rituals of baptism, the Lord's Supper, and preaching. If they are Christian, they pray, and most often end their prayers with the liturgical "in Jesus' name, Amen." They pray before their meals, and have their "quiet time" regularly. And praise God that they do. Order is discipline, and shows reverence to God and to those around us. One can cling to cliches like a security blanket and decry the "ritualism" of "all those traditional churches", or "all those denominations" out there, as if they were the only ones that could fall into the error of cold, sterile worship. I would suggest that more careful thought on the matter is in order. It may very well be that those cliches are the worst form of ritualism of all.


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