Meaningless Mumbling vs. Restorative Ritual

In the span of just two days, I went from sitting in Mass in a small country parish to being on a satellite campus of one of the largest Christian gatherings in the world.

The Roman Catholic rituals in the former were in full bloom–the priest in his vestments, carefully orchestrating the service, diligently preparing the Eucharist, and painstakingly cleaning up the crumbs. On the other hand, the Willow Creek Global Leadership Summit, with around 160,000 attendees worldwide, was quite informal. Speakers wore street clothes, and vocalists danced around on the stage as the panoramic screen behind them displayed scenes of cotton-ball clouds and running water.

However, despite the immense differences between the two worship experiences there was one marked similarity: Ritual.

Now, as someone who has grown up a Protestant Christian, I have been a part of a number of different types of churches. Many of these churches, because they are Protestant (i.e. in the line of those who protested certain Catholic practices), identify themselves in distinction from Catholics. What do they actually know about Roman Catholicism? Often very little. But they do know that the Mass is riddled with ritual. Many view such rituals as meaningless and empty (an assumption flawed in as many ways as there are faithful Christians who practice the ritual). So in distinguishing themselves from Catholics, many Protestants have divested themselves of vestments, responsive prayers, and the like.

I will admit that certain rituals do become dead routines in particular communities where their meaning is not taught and their mode is irrelevant. Indeed the Second Vatican Council recognized that fact when they declared, among other things, that Mass should be said in the language of the people rather than Latin. But the assumption by many Protestants that ritual itself is meaningless is theologically flawed and spiritually hazardous.

First, the Christian church was built on ritual. Christ instituted two sacraments: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper (Matt 26, 28:18; Acts 2:42) . These are rituals par excellence, rituals on which Christian worship was founded, and rituals infused with grace and meaning by the very God who commands them. For that reason, let alone all that could be said about Old Testament worship of God, Christians cannot view ritual in worship as inherently futile and meaningless.

But the product of the “let’s-just-chuck-the-ritual” view is as flawed as its premise. I have seen many churches who have tried to excise ritual from their liturgical diet, and the only thing they are successful in rooting out is the meaning they were so eager to restore.

It happens all the time. A church leader decides to cut ceremony out of worship, considering it all pointless pomp and circumstance. So he creates a service of simplicity: music–message–music. That’s it. Oh yeah, and announcements get thrown in wherever possible. In the end, he creates merely a simpler ritual.

Now, that simple service can be spiritually restorative and vital in many ways, but so often the pastor or worship leader will not be able to see it for what it is: Ritual. If it is not viewed as ritual, so often it is not done with the intentionality that ritual requires. Its inception is incidental. Its meaning is not taught. Eventually even its style becomes irrelevant. In the end, the meaningless mumbling that worshipers were trying to avoid becomes just that.

As Marva Dawn puts it:

…every worship service has a liturgy. The question is whether it is a faithful one. (Reaching Out without Dumbing Down, 242).

Not all ritual is created equal. Some ceremonies supply flawed conceptions of God, and some supply hardly any conception at all.  However, the answer is not to eradicate the ritual, but to attend to it.

I’d love to hear your thoughts….

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4 Responses to Meaningless Mumbling vs. Restorative Ritual

  1. angreenlee says:

    Sam and I, perhaps because we have been currently reading “Desiring the Kingdom,” have been talking a lot about the positive effects of rituals/liturgies on the embodied Christian. It would be interesting to see what would come of adding some of them back into church life via liturgical calendar events and in-service practices… Personally, I think it would help me to see life as more integrated with and grounded within the church.

  2. kbrooksy says:

    I completely agree. The church we attend in Grand Rapids contains many liturgical elements, follows the liturgical calendar, and the preaching texts are often chosen from the lectionary. It is the first time I have attended a church that steeped in church tradition and it has been a very formative experience for me. It definitely gives you the sense that you are a part of something much larger than what is happening at your local church.

  3. Jennifer says:

    I am happy to hear the pendulum might be swinging in favor of a service that honors and respects our Christian heritage instead of bowing to the culture of the individual that the US is so fond of. I agree that meaning and worship often come with intention not just emotion. God is a God of order too.

    • kbrooksy says:

      Thanks for the reply Jennifer,

      I think people are yearning for the spiritual rhythm and depth that ritual provides, and my generation especially seems to be more fond of it than a couple of previous generations. As for the intention/emotion issue, emotion is a powerful and important piece of worship. But I think you are right when you say it is not the only piece. Emotion, learning-truth, and experiencing the presence of God in the community are all part of a healthy worship service.

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