Lee Trevino was one of the great all time golfers, a six times major winner, and as quick of tongue as he was soft of hand with the clubs.
He famously replied, after being asked what he would do if he were out on the course during a lightning storm, “I’d pull out a 1-iron, because even God can’t hit a 1-iron.”
He was also considered a bit lucky in the big tournaments. Or some some thought. Once in a press room after a round a journalist asked him: “Lee, why do you think you’re so lucky?”
He bristled, before replying, “I dunno, the more I practice the luckier I get.”
The more I practice, the luckier I get. Classic line.
Classic in what it tells us about the power of repetition. The power of habit. The power of doing the same thing time and time again, not simply as an end in itself, but with a telos, a goal. For Lee that was about winning golf tournaments, money and fame that has lasted well into his eighth decade.
But what about the power of habit for a greater telos than what Lee can envisage? In case you haven’t noticed, liturgy is making a comeback. And it’s making a comeback among the crowd in the evangelical church that we would have least expected it to, the Millennials.
Raised on their parents diet of Boomer church-lite, or seeker sensitive church services that stripped away anything that smacked of religiosity or formal structures in order to attract those steeped in the consumer culture of the mall, Millennials are returning to liturgy if not exactly in droves, then at least in significant numbers.
And its the types of Millennials who are doing so that is interesting. Rather than the theologically liberal Millennial (are there actually many of them left?) who aspires to the candles and smells and bells of High Church forms, it is the low evangelical Millennial who is searching for a more liturgical form of church. A form of church that links to the past, narrates the biblical frame as it walks through a church service, and that has a dual telos in mind.
Firstly the goal of being sent out in peace to love and serve the Lord. But also the eschatological telos of re-aligning our goals and aspirations towards the age to come. And this is a self-conscious aim of liturgy, because, as Jamie Smith says, the power of habit is what shapes us, what makes us love what we love. Every activity we undertake, such as shopping, watching film, the material we read, is liturgical in the sense that its aim to shape you towards itself. We learn truth by doing it.
Hence as Smith notes wryly in his book You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit:
“What is the chief end of man?” the consumerist catechism asks. “To acquire stuff with the illusion that I can enjoy it forever.”
It is a great tragedy that modern evangelicalism turned its back on liturgy at the very time in the mid-twentieth century the consumer bandwagon was just getting starting. Witness the deep resonating advertising campaigns and tsunami of images that have shaped our loves in the six decades since those heady days in the late fifties and sixties on Madison Avenue.
At the very time the church most needed a counter liturgy, an enacted story that would, that repetitive week by repetitive week, shape and transform us from potential worshippers of Mammon to worshippers of God, we meekly handed over that liturgical practice to the world. And now it is no longer week by week, but second by second as pop-up ad after pop-up ad distracts and attracts us.
Smith nails it when he says this:
Christian liturgies can’t just target the intellect: they also work on the body, conscripting our desires through the senses. Christian worship that will be counterformative needs to be embodied, tangible and visceral. The way to the heart is through the body. That’s why counterformative Christian worship doesn’t just dispense information; rather it is a Christ-centred imagination station where we regularly undergo a ritual cleansing of the symbolic universes we absorb elsewhere. Christian worship doesn’t just teach us how to think; it teaches us how to love, and it does so by inviting us into the biblical story and implanting that story in our bones.
“A Christ-centered imagination station”. I love that. And for my money it’s the only plausible counter to the imagination stations that are being thrust in our faces from every direction.
Let me tell you, the liturgical prowess of our culture has a head start on most of us when it comes to implanting its story in our bones. That’s why so much of our own push back against the cultural tide of sex and pleasure seems so anaemic. We’ve been offering the world a text book instead of the greatest romance ever written. More to the point, we’ve been offering our own people that! And then we’re surprised when the cultural liturgies, the secular liturgies, so easily entice them.
Smith laments the reductionism of conservative evangelicalism which he says views the human being as “a head on a stick”, in which ethical transformation will occur if just the right amount of knowledge is embedded within it. As a pastor I can tell you that such a view has a limited shelf life. Christians who walk away from the gospel don’t usually walk away from it because they can’t believe its true. They walk away from the gospel because it is no longer their greatest desire. The excuse that it’s not true simply comes later in order to justify their new desires and actions.
There is a lot more to say about this, and I intend to write a few more posts on it. But let me conclude with a message to pastors. It’s time to stare down the well meaning lay leaders and members of your church who would be horrified in you, if in your capacity as a theologically trained leader, you were to oversee and overhaul the running of the weekly church service. If you were to say “Actually, I’m going to lead the worship service for the next three months.”
But I am convinced you need to – for the moment at least. Because across the evangelical world there is repair work to be done. For unless you can present a thick, counterformative liturgical frame to your gatherings, one that deliberately targets the affections (to use the old term) with a gospel inspired, narratival journey from call to worship to sending out, then you’re leaving your people defenceless against the cultural liturgies that are hell-bent on shaping them Monday morning to Saturday night.