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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.
I applaud a great deal here, so much so that I consider myself a dedicated member of this broader endeavor. Yet three assumptions made by champions of the evangelical liturgy cause have left me with major concerns—especially as I reflect on the students in my former community. Their formation clearly failed despite the liturgical ethos of their institution. What lessons can evangelicals learn from struggles that persist despite liturgical involvement?
Many proponents of liturgical evangelicalism wax poetic about the benefits accruing from embodied forms of worship. Emphasis on the body, they contend, redirects evangelicalism’s reliance on learning and memorizing doctrine. Smith exemplifies this tendency when he interprets identity formation as the body’s purview over the mind.
In Desiring he tells the story of a woman with amnesia who had to be reintroduced to her interviewer each time he entered the room. Her memory of him faded as soon as he exited their shared space. However, if he shook her hand with a pin in his fingers, the next time he was reintroduced to her, she would refuse to shake his hand.
Smith concludes that the body triumphs over cognitive processes, embodiment taking priority over the mind. But I find this reasoning flawed for two reasons: first, the woman’s behavior occurs as a result of brain damage, a process we may not wish to make a norm. Second, and more important, her behavior does not demonstrate the failure of the mind so much as what happens when parts of the brain and body do not interact well. The woman’s ability to connect her memory to her sensory input remained, while her ability to connect memory to her visual input was hampered. So, what this experience reveals is the enduring interrelation of our bodies, brains, and identities.
Further, malformation can happen even when the body is liturgically engaged. In liturgy, one’s body is certainly involved and bodily habits are formed, but the goal should be transformation of the whole self. This will be true for children and folks with cognitive disabilities as well (contra Smith, in Desiring). In fact, if one’s mind is not involved—as far as possible—in one’s liturgical participation, liturgy becomes only an empty shell, similar to the Christian propositions devoid of application that Smith so decries. The only difference is that rote "liturgizing" entails disconnected bodily gestures, while rote memorization fosters disconnected thoughts. Either way, the person remains fragmented. Highlighting the importance of the body against cognitive processes does not heal the rift between mind and body; it merely shifts the emphasis of an already unbalanced anthropology. We need a fuller account of mind-body integration to form the whole person, not a continued zero-sum game pitting mind against body.
For example, consider the students at the service I describe. They understood worship was not just any other practice, because they made time for it. They knew they were encountering the divine because they reverently involved their bodies. But beyond this participation, their behavior did not change. Their desires were not automatically transformed by their bodily liturgical participation; they just lived two different lives.
Liturgy’s involvement of the body is a boon, then, but both its potential and its drawbacks need to be discussed more carefully. So while one cannot think one’s way to God, one certainly can't "liturgize" one’s way to heaven’s doors, either (as Martin Luther amply demonstrated 500 years ago)!
Related to this lopsided anthropology, champions of liturgical evangelicalism often praise liturgical promotion of the forgotten emotions that produce authentic Christian behavior. When Smith references Bill Cavanaugh’s "provincial farm boy" whose formation by secular emotional appeals wrongly convinces him to go off to war, he makes this assumption explicit. Smith claims that in order to persuade the farm boy “to die as a martyr for the Christian faith . . . [t]he answer is the same” as the process involved in getting him to die for his state (Imagining). In fact, Smith declares that Christian education must be entirely redirected in order to better foster such liturgical emphasis of the emotions (Desiring). According to him, this trajectory produces "sentimental" awareness of one’s location within God’s story of the world, which is a more desirable outcome than mere professional training (Imagining). Smith asserts that by following these recommendations, Christian education can promote humility versus pride in one’s abilities. But in my view, this is wishful thinking.
Over the past century, evangelical formation has indeed overly stressed factual knowledge. And it is certainly true that valuing one’s emotions integrates one’s identity. Still, the antidote to emotion-driven secular liturgies is not just emotion-driven Christian liturgy. The "provincial farm boy" has been persuaded by liturgies that conceal the truth. To change his course of action, he needs more than just emotional persuasion in a different direction—or he will become a pendulum continually pulled first one way, then another. Returning again to my opening story, my students’ emotions were engaged as long as they were present at church. But as soon as they walked out the back door, their emotions went very different directions.
For them and for the farm boy to abhor sin and embrace the good, for all of us to redirect our emotions for the long haul, facts need to be gathered and reflection undertaken—identifying underlying desires and motives, understanding what courses of action entail for those affected by our decisions, considering what certain habits create in the self. Only by accessing and accepting truth can we question and resist erroneous liturgies and channel desire aright. Smith might argue that such reflection will be prompted by participation in liturgy, but in my experience this is not automatic. Sentimental liturgical practice does not guarantee virtue formation—and may in fact lead to pride in participating in a supposedly superior form of worship. In short, liturgical tapping into emotion provides a necessary piece of the formation puzzle, but we need Christians who are both emotionally healthy and capable of careful reasoning. Neither aspect should be divorced from liturgical contexts or educational endeavors.
Finally, liturgy is not a pre-packaged entity. It is crafted, revised, and regulated by sinners. Diverse worshiping groups using the same or similar liturgical forms can foster very different experiences and habits. Liturgical Christianity, then, requires us to examine the nature of authority. Are some liturgies better than others, and who decides? Who recognizes which liturgies, and how and why? Who is chosen to preside and how? How are congregants treated by leaders; is the liturgy truly their work? Who gets to write and/or revise liturgies? Who calls these folks to account? Moreover, how should we handle conflicts over liturgical forms and practices?
I’ll give another example. This time I’ll pick on my own communion, the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA). Its bishops recently approved a new liturgy highlighting an older rite that calls congregants to recognize any unfinished business and to ask and grant forgiveness of one another before Communion. I find this a wonderful retrieval, as it beautifully captures the stress Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians gives to waiting for and discerning each other as the Body of Christ. But does this not require ACNA’s leaders to make peace with the Episcopal Church it departed from, often in very unhappy circumstances? If not, why not? How can the confession rite form the denomination from here on out, especially if its applicability is already considered conditional? Are these good and just forms, and will decision-makers hold themselves accountable to the people?
In order that we may more fully honor and walk with God, identity formation requires discussions that tease out the differences and interplay between emotions, thoughts, minds, bodies, and brains. In my view, what forms Christian identity is not espousing a priority of the body and emotions over the mind and thoughts, but the turning over of the whole self into God’s loving hands. How do we describe and promote this process?
One way to move forward would be to develop more fully Smith’s ideas on the significance of desire. I suggest that Christian formation remains elusive unless the mind-body is not only connected but also animated by desire—which of course ebbs and flows and can be directed, encouraged, or squelched by certain environments and practices. In Smith’s fictional example, a man named Alex can in his “regular and repeated immersion in the practices of Christian worship” absorb the temperament of God so that he is able to forgive his wayward son (Imagining). But this is not quite true. It is not the liturgy, Alex’s bodily behavior, or the emotion Alex feels while at worship that develops him into a forgiving person. It is rather Alex’s reception of God’s presence that allows him to receive the gift of God’s character reorienting his perspective.
Smith would argue that participation in liturgy encourages such reception, but in my experience, liturgical Christians don’t seem more likely to forgive than non-liturgical Christians. In fact, I know many Christians opposed to liturgical worship whose openness to God in their Scripture reading and congregational service has formed their desires in incredibly virtuous ways. God’s indwelling is a gift capable of being nurtured by our choices but not something automatically produced by various methods of worship.
Focusing on desire underlines our need for God to refine what drives us, including our liturgical behavior. As we allow God to expose, test, and refine our desires, we will be pushed to change how we participate in, direct and preside over, or revise and steward liturgical forms: connecting together the mind, emotions, and body and enlivening the feedback loop between liturgy and ethics. We might also discover how to live in greater union with other Christians, based on principles other than whether or not they worship liturgically. Without a commitment to these processes, the movement to promote liturgy within evangelicalism runs the risk of becoming a fad failing to produce lasting impact.
Kirsten Laurel Guidero is a Ph.D. candidate in systematic theology at Marquette University and an aspirant to ordained ministry in the Anglican Communion.