Thursday, May 2, 2013

Is there value in going through the motions?

Most Christians would agree that just showing up for worship and "going through the motions" isn't a good thing. Some might even say that it's better not to show up at all if this is the case. Better to be cold than lukewarm, right? Certainly the Great Command to love God with our whole heart, soul and mind implies worship that is fervent and fully engaged. Yet there are times when we don't experience that fervency, when we're not "feeling it", even as we, yes, go through the motions of singing, praying and participating in the practices of corporate worship.

One of the arguments made in Desiring the Kingdom is that there is value in going through the motions when it comes to worship and discipleship. Here I'm quoting author James K.A. Smith from a footnote on page 167.

While it [going through the motions] is not ideal, I do think that there can be a sort of implanting of the gospel that happens simply by virtue of participating in liturgical practices (this is in the ballpark of the principle of ex opere operato). For instance, one will often hear testimonies of those raised in the church, but who have strayed from the path of discipleship, nevertheless caught short by the cadences of the Apostles' Creed or the catechism while immersed in hedonistic pursuits of pleasure. The rhythms of the liturgy come back to haunt them, sometimes calling them back to a life of more intentional discipleship. Or one finds that their imagination—the very way they construe the world—is fundamentally shaped by Christian practices.

Smith tries to get his readers to see that what we acknowledge to be true in many "secular" pursuits is also true for the Christian life. Go to any Major League ballpark an hour before game time and you'll see players going through the motions -- hitters taking batting practice, outfielders shagging fly balls and infielders taking grounders. Often there will be a casualness that belies the fact that something important is happening -- reflexes are being honed, muscles are being trained, so that later on when the game is on the line the third baseman will be able to scoop up a one-hopper and fire to first base without having to reflect on it. The hours Derek Jeter spends going through the motions is integral to being an All-Star shortstop, and while not an exact parallel, the same principle applies to Christians training to be fit citizens of the Kingdom of God.

All this points to a huge opportunity for Christian parents of young children to implant the seeds of the gospel, an opportunity we'll miss if we don't immerse our kids in the church every chance we get. As Smith writes in a key line from the book: ". . . the practices of Christian worship are crucial—the sine qua non—for developing a distinctly Christian understanding of the world." (p. 68)

I believe if that "distinctly Christian understanding"—an understanding which is as much intuitive as it is reflective—is formed early, it will leave traces on the heart that can never be erased.

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