The service was undeniably beautiful. Dedicated pastors and volunteers had planned it for weeks. There were banners, incense, and altar decorations. The sanctuary was packed: more than 1,000 folks overflowed the seats, latecomers standing along the sides and back. The congregation participated with gusto. But after receiving Communion, they marched out of the sanctuary. By the closing hymn, only a few folks dotted the pews that just five minutes before had been filled to bursting.
Some left to cram in work, but many in this particular group were on their way to that night’s parties. In another five hours, many would be passed out on the couches of friends or strangers, a few would be rushed by ambulance for alcohol poisoning treatment, and, most horrific, some would be sexually assaulting their peers or suffering such violence. It was the weekend, and the community in question was a Christian university. The school was by no means a place where only lip service was paid to Christian ideals: students eagerly participated in voluntary ministry, including planning that night’s service. So why were their late-night identities so disconnected from their church identities?
A growing number of evangelicals view failures of faithfulness as lapses in liturgical formation—or claim that participating in liturgical worship is key to transforming our character. Beginning with Robert Webber’s now-classic Ancient-Future series and continuing with such gems as Mark Galli’s Beyond Smells and Bells, the movement has produced much good work inspiring evangelicals to incorporate liturgical elements into their services. Calvin College professor James K. A. Smith’s multi-volume Cultural Liturgies project is fast becoming the most influential development of this stance. Given the depth and impact of his arguments, I focus here on Smith’s defense of liturgical evangelicalism.
As Smith notes in his first book, “our Christian colleges and universities generate an army of alumni who look pretty much like all the rest of their suburban neighbors, except that our graduates drive their SUVs, inhabit their executive homes, and pursue the frenetic life of the middle class and the corporate ladder ‘from a Christian perspective’” (Desiring the Kingdom). This kind of formation bleeds into our churches as well. What evangelicalism has long taken for granted—that good teaching and Scripture reading are sufficient for creating disciples—is negated by the vast numbers of evangelicals who can say all the right things while practicing all the wrong behaviors.
Smith argues instead that humans are social animals whose loves (not so much our ideas) shape our outlooks, capacities, decisions, and identities (Desiring). In his May 2013 interview with CT, “You Can’t Think Your Way to God,” he noted that people are “defined by what they worship rather than primarily by what they think, know, or believe.” In Smith’s view, no neutral practices exist. Over time, even “thin” behaviors hook up to our desires and become “thick,” shaping us in long-lasting ways (Desiring). We are drawn at each moment by various liturgies: shopping malls and sports spectacles, nationalism and stock markets, or the Christian community (Imagining the Kingdom). Smith suggests that without participation in a rich liturgy, Christian education only stuffs minds full of unapplied doctrinal points. The result? Our desires untouched, he argues in both books, we remain vulnerable to being co-opted by the liturgies of the world.