We all know what it’s like to be bored with worship. Anyone who has been around the church for a while knows what it is to sing a praise song so many times that it becomes almost painful. Our worship services can become boring, predictable, numbing. And that’s not good. Boring, predictable, numbing practices can rob us of our passion and make God seem like something he is certainly not: boring.
While I’m convinced of this point, I don’t believe the answer to boredom lies in constant novelty. Certain church paradigms believe this. Change it up, keep everything moving, shift gears incessantly or we’ll lose their tiny attention spans.
But passion in worship is not the inevitable byproduct of constant novelty. Nor is repetition the opposite of vitality. In his excellent and important book Imagining the Kingdom, James K. A. Smith makes a case for repetition as a central part of our worship:
“We, especially we Protestants, have a built-in allergy to repetition in worship, though we are quite happy to affirm the value of repetition in almost every other sphere of life, from study to music to sports to art. We affirm the value of ritual repetition if we’re learning piano scales or learning to hit a golf ball but are curiously suspicious of repetitive ritual in worship and discipleship” (Imagining the Kingdom, Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013, 181).
Does that strike you as odd? You’ll never become a musician if you don’t value repetition. You’d be stabbing yourself in the cheek with your fork without a lifetime of repetition. You wouldn’t speak English if it weren’t for repetition. We know that repetition is important for mastering a skill, for getting a practice to sink deeply into our being.
To use a basketball analogy: being a good basketball player requires the ability to dribble, pass, shoot, screen, and block out without giving a second’s thought to these activities. You’ll only be a solid player when these practices are second nature, automatic, natural. You push the ball towards the court, your fingers receive the ball when it bounces back up. You push it back down again. The shot goes up, your body immediately gets into position for the rebound. It just happens. You’re not letting your eyes be distracted with these actions, you’re not wasting your brain power on them, this is simply how you’ve trained your body to behave on the court. You’ve spent countless hours repeating these skills, forcing your body to learn these practices without the conscious assistance of your brain.
So it is with worship. You won’t be good at worshiping God in the moment that you lose your biggest client or get cut off in traffic or lose your temper with your child unless you’ve trained yourself to be a worshiper. And this requires repetition. Our corporate worship services and church gatherings are, in a sense, our basketball practices. We listen to sermons to hear the story of what God has done in Christ. We speak and sing and exult in this story with our songs. We acknowledge our need for this story in our prayers. We enact this story in taking Communion. We incarnate this story in the words and actions we do in fellowship and service with and for one another. With repetition, the story sinks into our bones.
We enact the story of what God has done in Christ as if by second nature. It has become part of us, it has come to shape us. And thus it shows up unexpectedly in actions that we would not have thought have anything to do with worship.
In comparing our church gatherings to “practice” I don’t mean to imply that what we do in church is not serious. It is. And it’s these serious (yet joyful) times of intentionally saturating ourselves in God’s story that make the story a natural part of who we are.
The world around us knows the value of repetition for shaping the human soul: think of how deep-seated consumerism has become in our society, our churches, and our hearts. Smith recognizes how effective the advertisers are at shaping us and laments how weak the church is at countering this formation that we receive from the world:
“It is precisely our allergy to repetition in worship that has undercut the counterformative power of Christian worship—because all kinds of secular liturgies shamelessly affirm the good of repetition. We’ve let the devil, so to speak, have all the repetition…Unless Christian worship eschews the cult of novelty and embraces the good of faithful repetition, we will constantly be ceding habituation to secular liturgies” (183, emphasis added).
In other words, if our worship experiences remain fixated on novelty while our society engages in effective repetition, our Christian formation will take a back seat to our secular formation.
In my next post, I’ll talk about what healthy repetition might look like in our church gatherings.