Habit-Forming Worship

Photo by Edwin Andrade on Unsplash

In most conversations about worship, an obstacle stands in the way of understanding: you. Whether you know it or not, intend it or not, you carry a deep well of ideas about what worship is, what it looks, sounds, and feels like. You’ve built this knowledge over the years and decades of your life, adding to it each time you’ve gathered with the church. One might say, “I don’t really have a theology of worship,” but in fact everyone does. That’s because we are habit-formed people.

Notice I say “habit-formed” and not “habit-forming.” We are formed by the habits in which we live.

Imagine that you’d never heard of softball. One day, someone at work invites you to go play the game with a group she gathers with weekly. You accept the invitation and go, excited to learn about this strange, unknown game.

You’re taught the rules, and after a few Saturdays, you begin to actively participate and contribute to the game. Months go by, and one day someone new comes to the game. At first, he’s excited to be playing. “I played softball for years back in Michigan,” he says, but he’s quickly troubled. On your team, the bases are run clockwise. You pitch the ball to yourself. And every home run is met with a rousing chorus of “God Save the Queen.”

Things gets really difficult when your friend attempts to help you reform the game by the actual rules, and not the Marx Brothers-inspired farce in which you currently participate. Running counterclockwise is dizzying, and everyone swings wildly at slow-pitched balls. The song is still sung on occasion, but its meaning is long gone.

The habits of your corrupted version of softball shaped the way you understood and participated in the game. Anything different was difficult to comprehend, and only after immersion in new habits over a long period of time would you begin to appreciate them.

Worship Wars

It works the same with worship. Our worshiping habits have shaped our understanding and our expectations. Most of us have positive emotions attached to the way we regularly gather with our churches, and shifting those ideas (and eventually, shifting those habits) comes painfully. This is why the “worship wars” of a few years ago were so intense. The habits of traditionalism were ingrained, connecting with powerful emotions of joy and meaning. Singing contemporary praise choruses instead of hymns and listening to preachers in polo shirts instead of suits felt a lot like running around the bases backwards.

To be clear, though, I am not saying that everyone else’s worship is a Marx Brothers-inspired farce. Far from it! I am saying that our ways of gathering are deeply ingrained habits, and their habitual nature makes it difficult to see alternatives as viable.

Forming Habits That Form Us

Nearly everything we do that’s important to us is learned through practice. No one sits down with a cello and immediately plays Bach’s Suite No. 1 for Cello. It takes years of practice to cultivate the sense of intonation and timing, the hand strength and touch sensitivity, not to mention the basic rudiments of reading and studying music. This need for time and practice is true of anything—public speaking, athletics, and creativity of all kinds. To learn any of these skills, you must develop habits and routines that make for progress. We are literally training our bodies to cooperate with us as we seek to live them out, which is why athletes and musicians talk about “muscle memory.”

We do this because we believe the reward of our efforts is great enough to justify the required sacrifice of time and effort. Some skills, like playing golf or painting with oils, take little time to learn the basics and thousands of hours to master—if mastery is even achievable. We form habits, like practicing for an hour a day or visiting a driving range once a week, and our habits form us, ingraining the correct angle of a swing or the shape of our hands over the keys of a piano.

Worship as a ‘Thick’ Habit

Philosopher James K. A. Smith, in his fascinating and helpful book Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, distinguishes between practices that are thin (and less meaningful, like brushing our teeth) and thick (more meaningful, teaching us to love and desire deeply, and shaping identity). In the thick category, Smith locates our specific religious habits, like worship and daily devotions, as well as more incipient habits, like extended TV viewing or listening to inflammatory talk radio for three hours a day.

It’s in this framework that we need to think about corporate worship. Gathering with the church is a habit we form, and it’s a “thick” habit, one that profoundly forms us. As I said earlier, a wellspring of experience from years of worshiping together has formed all kinds of ideas about what worship is, who God is, and what it means to be the church. For good or bad, our worship practices are forming us and our communities, giving shape to what we believe.

A church that gathers each week with cold seriousness, lofty architecture, dense language, and grumpy upper-middle-class white people is making a statement about the kingdom. Those who congregate there weekly are being formed into a kind of community. Likewise, a church with smoke, lights, rock-star worship leaders, and celebrity pastors is forming a particular kind of community. How we gather shapes who we are and what we believe, both explicitly (through the actual content of songs, prayers, and sermons) and implicitly (through the cultural ethos and personas).

The ancient church summed this up in the Latin phrase lex orandi, lex credendi, which essentially means “so we pray, so we believe.” The phrase acknowledges this habit-formed reality. The identity of the church is formed and transformed as it gathers around the Word and responds in the songs, prayers, and fellowship of the saints.

So let’s all acknowledge this fact: for better or worse, our worship, regardless of our tradition or musical style or culture, is shaping the hearts and minds of our congregations. We are always teaching, shaping, and painting a picture of what the Christian life looks like. It’s in this light that we should evaluate our gatherings. What are we saying about “normal” Christianity? How do our services reflect the way the gospel changes our perspective on the world? What are we saying to those who suffer? To the poor? The rich? Those who are like us? Those who are unlike us? How are we connecting to past, present, and future?

These are crucial questions for pastors, church planters, and worship leaders. The answers we provide in our gatherings—both implicitly and explicitly—will have a deep, life-long, life-shaping effect on the faith of our congregations.