Americans are notoriously anti-ritual. At least we think we are.
However, just as one cannot escape being a theologian, one cannot escape rituals and rhythms in life. This is true in our personal lives and in the life of local churches.
Ritual and rhythmic activity in the life of a congregation is often associated with the high-church traditions of Catholics, Lutherans, and Anglicans. However, as much as one may try, low-church traditions can not escape rhythms of church life. Every congregation has rhythms that are followed. The only question is: what are these rhythms seeking to form?
In a previous post, S.A. Morrison outlined the benefits and beauty of one of the rhythms in the history of the church, the liturgical church calendar. While the various implementations of the liturgical calendar guide higher church traditions, it is often viewed with skepticism or outright hostility in lower-church traditions.
While some critiques of an over-dependence on ritual and rhythms in Christian formation are biblically valid, the baby need not be thrown out with the bath water. The goal here is to offer three brief thoughts to my lower-church brothers and sisters on some of the benefits of implementing aspects of the liturgical calendar in the rhythms of your congregation. Implementation can vary depending on one’s context. Equality of implementation is not the argument here, but merely some form of intentional implementation consistent with one’s Christian tradition.
We all follow rhythms
Every congregation has repeated seasons and events that become a part of the fabric and life of the church. Even the most professed anti-ritualistic churches have certain elements repeated each week in the Sunday gathering of the congregation. Pastors that have changed, or attempted to change, some of these elements know first-hand this reality.
Every church has rhythms. This is not only unavoidable, it is a good thing. Rhythmic activity is how formation occurs. Athletic and musical excellence does not occur accidentally. It is the result of intentional repetition. Healthy bodies are not achieved overnight but are the fruit of healthy rhythms of eating and exercise. Why is the blessed man of Psalm 1 rooted like a tree with deep roots next to the stream? It is the result of daily meditation on the law of the Lord. Rhythms are essential to formation.
Most pastors have some intentional pattern for selecting sermons and sermon series. Some may focus on a topic relevant to the congregation’s current needs. Others may intentionally rotate from various genres of Scripture, so the congregation is exposed to the breadth of the Scriptures throughout the Old and New Testaments. Regardless of the pattern, rarely does a pastor accidentally find himself in a given sermon text. Some degree of intentionality exists.
The Story of Christ
If it is true that we cannot escape rhythms and all rhythms provide formation, then why not let the rehearsal of the story of Jesus set your congregational rhythms? The story of Jesus is at the heart of the liturgical calendar.
Advent is waiting for the coming of the promised Messiah. Christmas is the celebration that Jesus has come. Epiphany celebrates the revelation of God incarnate in Jesus as the light to the Gentiles. Lent reminds us that God’s love poured out to us in Christ is a response to our own sin and rebellion against him. On Good Friday, we commemorate the crucifixion of Jesus for the sins of the world. The empty tomb on the third day is the impetus for our Easter celebration. And Pentecost is the reminder that just as the Father sent Jesus, so Jesus sends us today in the power of the Spirit to be his ambassadors that the kingdom has come.
This is the good news story of the kingdom. The rhythms of the liturgical calendar seek to form the congregation through this story. The story of Jesus is the centerpiece of the true story of the world. We cannot understand ourselves and our place in the world outside of this story.
Congregations will be formed by a story. Formation through rhythms is inescapable. The question is which story and what rhythms will provide the formation. Let your congregational rhythms be set by the story of Jesus.
Unity of the Church
Though the unity of the global body of Christ is a theological reality because of the work of the Spirit, its functional reality is elusive. In the American context alone, there seems to be more denominations than churches. Additionally, a countless number of churches in existence were birthed out of disunity. To deny that this reality stains the message of a people who claim to be ambassadors of reconciliation is akin to denying the wetness of water.
What are we to do as the inheritors of centuries of Christian institutional disunity? Admittedly, our options are limited. But we are not completely devoid of all steps towards unity. The liturgical calendar provides one pathway of visible unity for the global church. Though we may differ on the timing of baptism and questions of church polity, we are united in the story of Christ.
Millions of Christians across thousands of ethnicities, languages, and cultural settings annually rehearsing the longing of the coming of Christ in Advent is not without meaning or significance. It is a reminder that the story of each congregation only has meaning in so much as it finds its place in the story of God’s people, a people who find their story in the story of Christ.
This story finds its culmination in the eternal kingdom of the new heavens and earth under the reign of Christ. It is a kingdom where all God’s people worship the Lamb in unity for eternity. This reality is part of the Christian hope. Congregations sharing in the rhythm of the liturgical calendar is a way we not only offer a glimpse into the future but prepare ourselves for eternity.
Cory Wilson (Ph.D., Reformed Theological Seminary) is Co-founder of Emmaus Theological Seminary, where he teaches in the fields of Missiology and Theology. Cory also serves as a Pastor of City Church in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. Cory and his wife Jasmine have called Northeast Ohio home since 2012 and have four children.
Photo by Kenny Eliason on Unsplash