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Does God Care about Ritualistic Worship?

Stephen Lawson* oversees a course in the history of Christian worship for The Consortium for Christian Online Education.  A student recently asked a good question in an online forum that many evangelicals ask.  The question, and Stephen's response, are worth reading.

A student's question:

Does ritualistic worship matter to God?  I realize that it may matter to some men or women, but does God really even care about the ritualistic parts of our worship of Him?


This is an interesting question. It is one that is deeply theological and pushes us to return to Scripture and the Christian tradition to articulate a faithful answer. The question you’re really getting at, the one behind the question you are asking is, “what is Christian worship?” and “how do we worship God faithfully?”

Here are some of my initial thoughts on this important matter:

To begin with, what is a ritual? We tend to think of somber monks chanting and bowing as being “ritualistic,” but the truth is “ritual” is a far broader term than that. In the context of Christian worship, we can refer to any expected and accepted actions of the congregation as “ritualistic.” When people move and act in a certain way in order to show reverence, unity and allegiance, we can refer to that as ritualistic. Thus, pledging allegiance to a flag is a ritualistic action. As is asking the congregation to gather, face the same direction, stand, sit, bow, raise arms, etc. These are prescribed actions and are therefore ritualistic. There can even be freedom of expression within rituals.

Maybe a non-religious example would be helpful here. As anyone who has spent time in a different culture knows, the various actions people participate in when they are eating a meal together are highly ritualized. Sometimes there are elaborate practices of taking off shoes, or washing hands before the meal. There is often a standard about who gets served food in what order, of what kind of utensils to use, how to pass the food, in what order to eat the food, what should or should not be complimented about the food, etc. 

When I spent time in Zimbabwe doing some work with a mission I thought to myself, “How do these people remember all these rules?!” It was then that it hit me. We have just as many rules about eating in our own culture. If a friend invites you and your wife over for dinner in our culture, there is a set of normal and acceptable practices, that is, rituals, that we abide by. For example, it would be rude to not compliment the food, or to ask your friend what his annual income is. In China the exact opposite of this is often expected. 

Now, within our framework of having someone over for a meal there is a freedom and flexibility, but the framework sets the rules and allows for freedom by establishing acceptable (and unacceptable) behaviors.

Humans are very ritualized creatures. We have complex rituals that we all know and abide by for every aspect of our lives. Those that don’t abide by the proper rituals are isolated in our society. Just think about someone who refuses to wait in line properly, to abide by the (official and unofficial) rules of the road, to participate in conversation with the proper posture and tone. Such people find it difficult to fit into society and flourish. Indeed, those who are high on the autism spectrum, who are physically unable to abide by the proper social rituals of our society, often require full-time care.

Everything we do as humans in groups fits within ritualized practices. This is true for Christian worship, whether it is the “smells and bells” worship of Roman Catholics or the energetic worship of Pentecostal Christians. Everyone in the assembly abides by certain official and unofficial rules about when to act in certain ways. This is not at all a bad thing, for this is part of the nature of what it is to be human (in fact, language itself, with its rules and flexibility, is a very ritualized practice). And if that wasn’t enough, the Apostle Paul himself tells us to worship “decently and in order.” (1 Cor 14:40)

So, the question should not be, “should we use ritual worship?” but “what kinds of rituals will we use in worship?” This is a significant change in the question.

So, yes. I think that ritual worship matters to God because I don’t think there is another kind of “un-ritual” worship.  Are rituals pleasing in and of themselves? Could we be unfaithful in our Christian practice and still use the right rituals and be pleasing to God? Of course not! 

There is so much Scripture (as you note) that undercuts this notion. If we are sinning and oppressing the poor (which the OT prophets seem particularly upset by), then our rituals can be offensive to God. But that doesn’t mean that the rituals are wholly useless.

Finally (and I recognize that I’ve gone on too long already), I would agree that God is primarily interested in the hearts of his people. The first goal of all Christian worship is to give adoration to God. The second goal is to form for God’s self, a person, a body, a family. In our worship, we cultivate that unity of heart, mind, and body. One of the ways we do that is with communal practices (standing together, holding hands in prayer, praying the Lord’s Prayer, taking the Eucharist, etc.) these our physical and ritual practices that cultivate a change in our hearts and whole selves. 

Our hearts are affected and united to our bodies and our voices. Where we put our bodies, our hearts will follow. I suggest that what Jesus said about our money is also true for our bodies. Where they are, there your heart will be also (Matt 6:21). Jesus doesn’t say that where our heart is, there will be our treasure, but the reverse. I, for one, am glad for this. 

For I do not always feel in my heart like obeying Scripture or worshipping God. I do not always have the right heart. Sometimes it is full of doubt or anger. If I refused to worship and give until I felt my heart was entirely in the right place on every point, I am not sure I never would. Yet, when I come together with the people of God, give generously and worship within the actions and "rituals" of that gathered church, even when I don’t feel like it, the Holy Spirit often works upon my own heart to change it and turn it time and again back towards God.

*My son Stephen 
is a Ph.D. student
at St. Louis University

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

One of the textbooks I used at KCU was by McNabb and Mabry titled "How to Teach Creatively". One principle they shared was 'I believe what I do, more than I do what I believe'. You are right Stephen. Actions often soften the heart and direct it where it should be. We teach children to apologize, even when they don't feel it. Our senses can immediately take us to a time and a place in our memories and our hearts. So, why is it so difficult for us to use smells, bells, gestures and posture in our worship?
You have presented some thoughts to be considered and pondered. Bottom line, is what we do as a community of believers honoring to God? Thanks for the challenge.