There is an unspoken but real pressure upon pastors to be creative in corporate worship. Standing before our people, we often feel a burden to captivate attention by saying something interesting or new. This expectation to be novel often translates into a persistent fear of being boring. Who among us hasn’t felt the need to say something really profound when introducing the Lord’s Supper?
This emphasis on creativity has led to a suspicion of ritual. I use the term ritual here in the ordinary sense as that which is done routinely in a set manner. A ritual in worship can be anything that is performed regularly in a certain way. What skeptics of ritual often overlook is that even worship services that are believed to be free or spontaneous inevitably become ritualized. Even when we believe we are being creative in worship, we are in fact tending toward ritual. We are creatures of habit, and if it is up to us to say something creative at all times, we will inevitably start saying the same things. Our creative and interesting words will eventually become ritual, even if it’s ritual that comes out of our personal theology or spirituality.
There is another kind of ritual, however, that emerges out of the collective wisdom of the church throughout the ages. Examples include practices like reading psalms as a call to worship, passing the peace of Christ, reciting the creeds, saying the Lord’s Prayer, administering the sacraments with the words set forth in ancient liturgies, and pronouncing benedictions that come directly out of Scripture. There are many reasons why these practices or rituals of the church should be employed, but there are three reasons that are often overlooked.
Ritual provides stability. We live in a rapidly changing world that creates a sense of insecurity in the hearts of most people sitting in our pews. Moreover, many people in our services are dealing with unsettling changes in their personal lives, such as illness, the death of loved ones, or the loss of employment. That they can come to worship and find some stability in what happens there is deeply reassuring. For example, think of the comfort one might find in repeating the enduring truths of the Apostles’ Creed. Although we might feel that everything around us is shifting, these truths of the creed are lasting and secure. Rituals like the creed provide stability, and that stability points people to the unchangeable character of God.
This is not to say that the church should be a community that is immune to innovation and change. Innovation and change are needed in order to advance the church’s mission. But as Tod Bolsinger has recently pointed out in Canoeing the Mountains, before a pastor can lead a church in innovation and change, he or she must first be very clear on what will never change. Ritual in worship gives a much-needed sense of security as the church adapts creatively to fulfill its mission in the world.
Ritual instills humility. As a pastor, there is something self-emptying about leading a congregation in ritual. This is especially true in the high moments of worship, like administering the sacraments. The church as a whole has come to express the meaning of these moments better than we can as individuals. For example, whose words could match the beauty and depth found in the lines from the ritual of the Lord’s Supper: “Pour out your Holy Spirit on us and on these your gifts. Make them by the power of your Spirit to be for us the body and blood of Christ, that we may be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood”? Or who could call people to worship better than the psalmist, who says, “O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker” (95:6)? Or who could communicate the reality of Christ’s divinity more poetically than the Nicene Creed: “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God”?
By relying on the ancient words of the church, rather than trying to come up with a new way to speak of old truths, we acknowledge that worship is not about us but is instead about God and his saving action. Ritual saves us from the cult of personality. Ritual reminds us that long before we came and long after we are gone, God has been and will be at work in the worship of his people.
Ritual forms people. Learning theorists have long understood the importance of repetition in the process of acquiring knowledge. Sadly, however, repetition is often viewed negatively in the context of worship. Yet the reiteration of certain words and phrases in worship gradually forms our thinking about God and the Christian life. For instance, the weekly repetition of “Peace of Christ” or “Peace be with you” in the ritual of passing the peace is forming a certain perception about who God is: namely, God is a God of peace (Rom. 15:33). The phrase also shapes a particular understanding of what the Christian life entails: namely, peacemaking (Matt. 5:9).
There are certain truths that are so significant that they are worth repeating—over and over again. This repetition—by the slow and invisible work of the Holy Spirit—shapes our minds to think rightly about God and what it means to be his people in the world. The church’s ritual has enormous power to root people theologically and ethically.
In a culture oriented toward entertainment and novelty, making use of the church’s ritual will at times feel unnatural and out of date. Yet it will ultimately prove deeply beneficial, not only to us as leaders but also to the people we shepherd in worship. Ritual is a gift that we would do well to embrace joyfully and use faithfully.