Friday, April 12, 2013

How worship works

I'm reading Imagining the Kingdom: How worship works by James K. A. Smith. Good book and an important one. Basic premise: what we feel drives our behavior more than what we think. That may not be big news and it may not be exactly how Smith would put it. He uses bigger words and quotes from philosophers I never heard of. But what I get out of it is this: I have spent a lot of years preaching and teaching - focusing on The Big Ideas of Christian Truth. That's not a bad thing - Ideas are important, of course. We need to think about what we believe. But, what impacts behavior more is how our imaginations are formed. For me, it means we need to focus on worship as much as preaching. Most people do not come to church for the worship; they come or don't come for the preaching. In fact, liturgy turns some people off. All those preprinted prayers and confessions and bowing, or hand raising, or coming up to the altar for communion. Lots of people have opinions about that stuff. They have opinions about the preaching too and the biggest one is, " if I am not being fed there I am going somewhere else." Feeding trumps formation. But, Smith's point is Christian behavior/mission/purpose flows out of worship because the worship experience/the words and actions of worship/the environment shapes us. Most Christian people don't even believe they need to be in worship weekly. In fact, belief is too fine a point; they don't feel like being there or they feel like doing something else so they just do it. Not much thought involved really. But, Smith's point is that it is the repeated actions of worship that shape us so we act Christianly without really thinking about it. We learn Christian truth by doing it, not by only hearing it. We are shaped, formed by our experience of worship.

For example, my little granddaughter loves to be in church. She never hears a sermon because she leaves for children's church. But, she takes part in the greeting time, and she hears the prayers of the people, and she listens to the Scripture being read, and when she goes up for the children's sermon she brings a dollar for the children's offering. She says the Lord's prayer every week and she sings the doxology as well as all the other songs of praise. She is in a congregation of other children, infants and adults of all ages and she sees them taking part. This is an environment of learning. It is powerful shaper of spiritual life. She is forming spiritual habits that will inform her life all through the week. And it all happens "naturally," without giving it much thought.

Another example Smith uses: through his wife he has come under the influence of Wendell Berry, and Michael Pollan and other food writers who make the case for forming better (healthier) eating habits. But a funny thing happened one day when he found himself reading Berry's book, Bringing it to the Table, while eating in the food court at Costco. What struck him was the significant gap between thought and action. He knew what he should be eating but without thinking he was eating what he usually did. You can believe Michael Pollan and still find yourself in the drive -thru at MacDonalds.

His point: much of our orientation to and action in the world - is governed by preconscious habits and patterns of behavior, and those habits are formed by environments of practice. What "liturgies" are shaping us?

So, see you in Church!