Worship, Rinse ... Repeat: Dispelling the Myth about Mindless Ritual
(This article first appeared on Praisecharts.com, March 2021)
One of the advantages about being around a long time is that you get to see life across a bigger sample size. Cross-cultural travel and study help too, but sometimes it's helpful to examine one's own experiences to see if what we say as common sayings bear out any truth.
One of those sayings associated with people in free-church or Evangelical faith is "empty ritual" - a holdover from the Reformation's reaction to the Roman Catholic ritualization of faith. Anything that smacked of repetitiveness was surely a sign that it was man's vain attempt at works righteousness in earning God's favour. Faith which is seen as doing rather than faith as feeling was (and still is) frowned upon by many Evangelicals.
I found it quite a revelation, when I began to study historic Christian worship across denominations, at just how ritualized all of our brands of faith really are. The pastor of the Pentecostal church where I spent many years would weekly utter particular sayings as he came up to preach. In fact, we could mutter them from our lips as he was saying them, and I still can. One of those was "aren't you glad you're here in church today rather than in the best hospital in British Columbia?" In fact, I just asked my wife of 34 years if she remembered his words... she finished the sentence for me!
What's the lesson? Repetition causes remembrance. Educators know it. We all have memories of repeating our 'times tables' over and over until they could be uttered by rote, rather than calculated. Yet just because I can tell you without deep mental calculation that 6x4=24, it does not diminish the truth of that utterance.
So, what about faith and worship? My wife and I are probably of the last generation of British Columbians who experienced the Christian influence on society before the wave of secular and pluralistic values that have dominated our culture in the last 40 years. In my elementary school years, we started every day in the public schools I attended with a Bible reading (optional) and by saying The Lord's Prayer. I was not raised in a church-going family. This was my exposure to things Christian. Saying that prayer became an automatic exercise. It really was empty ritual. Or was it?
Fast-forward to 2020 and the life-changing nature of the COVID pandemic. For many of us, our worlds were turned upside down by the economic restructuring to avoid complete collapse. Personally, I had to leave my pastoral role of 20 years as well as a university teaching role as our program was dissolved. My wife and I sank ourselves into reading the Psalms to be able to cry out to God in our pain and bewilderment.
Yet finding words to say to God was difficult. That's when we reached back to the formative years so long ago. The Lord's Prayer, as I realize now, was how Jesus himself taught his disciples to pray. Not to just utter words mindlessly, but phrases which actually mean something (I confess that King James English didn't help me in the early years with my understanding of them).
You see, Jesus giving us that prayer means that God’s words might be on our lips when we pray. For the past several months, Darlene and I have daily taken moments to slowly utter that prayer (in its King James form as we learned it), but now with an understanding of what each phrase is saying so that we are aware of what we are praying. Lo and behold, saying the words that God taught us to pray tends to unlock our tongues (could that be the Holy Spirit?) and we can begin to carry on heartfelt dialogue with our Saviour.
In 1 Corinthians 14:15, Paul takes pains to state that when he prays, he does so in the Spirit and with understanding. My praying of the Lord's prayer was formed by ritual, but... it is grounded in my understanding of what I'm praying. All I'm saying is this this: repetition need not be mindless, and certainly, there are tremendous benefits from repetition - whether for working out physically, learning a skill, and yes, from praying as worship.
Working It Out:
Are there any items in the worship services you plan or attend that repeatedly form faith in you and in others? A creed? A scripture? An opening to a prayer?
Are there any lessons of faith that you can recount easily because you repeated a scripture or song over and over as a child? I'd love to hear what they are! Perhaps we've learned more than we know about God and faith through the little rituals we have engaged in.