Recovering the Liturgical Intentionality of the Church

In many aspects Christian worship has become something very different than what it was in the early Church. In ancient Israel, worship was a way of perceiving the world, not just a way to feel good on a rainy afternoon. It was not an escape from the world, but a way of imagining the world, giving the worshipers eyes to see. We see this in Chronicles with the careful attention to detail within the temple of the LORD. King David establishes a profound sense of holy space, holy time, and holy personnel that permeates the temple in such a way that causes the reader to take notice and ask, “What’s the importance of Christian liturgical practice?” Chronicles teaches us of the importance of Christian liturgical practice for forming habits, rhythms, and rituals for the worshipping community that develops a cultivated conscience and love of holiness within its individuals.

Religion and liturgy are deeply embedded in Scripture. In fact, they are so deeply rooted in the biblical text that Christians often glance over it. A closer look at a text like Chronicles shows that the goal and task of a Christian institution is formation rather than (in)formation. Towards the end of his life, king David tells his son Solomon how he would like the temple of the LORD to function as a liturgical institution. He insists on having committed people at work in the temple at all times. David has the Levites of at least thirty years old counted and then makes a detailed ordering of who will work in the temple saying, “Of these, twenty-four thousand are to be in charge of the work of the temple of the LORD and six thousand are to be officials and judges. Four thousand are to be gatekeepers and four thousand are to praise the LORD with the musical instruments I have provided for that purpose” (1 Ch. 23:4-5). In other words, there’s going to be constant work being done at the temple. Broadly speaking, this is often referred to as “perpetual liturgy.”

James KA Smith, a professor of philosophy at Calvin College and author of Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Cultural Liturgies), picks up this fascinating idea from Augustine, which simply says that human beings are primarily affectional creatures, rather than intellectual beings. Simply said, “We are what we love.” This gets straight to the point of what the Chronicler is getting at with the attention to detail with regards to the temple of the LORD. David finds much importance in developing a holy institution that is dedicated to the formation of disciples who think critically and carefully about the world in which they participate in out of a cultivated love for God and God’s plan for the world.

In Chronicles, David’s emphasis for the temple is on the actual temple practices, which suggest a kind of liturgical habit, a liturgical lifestyle. He goes on to explain what sort of role the Levites, the musicians, the treasurers and other officials have in the temple. In this way, the Chronicler is portraying David’s desire to establish an ideal community that won’t make the mistakes of the past. This is the basis for the new community post-exile. And at the core, this community is one that takes liturgical practice seriously. Before he passes the task of building the temple over to his son Solomon, David says, “LORD, the God of our fathers Abraham, Isaac and Israel, keep these desires and thoughts in the hearts of your people forever, and keep their hearts loyal to you. And give my son Solomon the wholehearted devotion to keep your commands, statutes and decrees and do everything to build the palatial structure for which I have provided” (1 Ch. 29:18-19). David wants nothing more than his son to carry out his vision for the establishment of a temple that enacts the will of God in its worship and helps to re-narrate Israel’s identity as the People of God. And this re-narration is towards the overarching Christian story, tracing the universal trajectory of creation towards its complete eschatological restoration, and locating the mission of the Church directly in the middle of that story as the people who live in the hope and vocation of redemption here and now.

Following in his father’s footsteps, King Solomon, as depicted by the Chronicler, is one who takes the nature of the temple very seriously. He values the grandeur, splendor, and beauty of God so much that he insists on emphasizing that in the very architecture of the temple. “The temple I build must be large and magnificent” (2 Ch. 2:9). He urges us to see that church worship is not a time to disregard liturgical competency. We learn how to relate to the world on a subconscious level through the liturgy of our worship services. Our vision of “the good life,” our vision of the Kingdom of God that we are pressing toward, isn’t something we’re born with. It’s a horizon of our reality, a set of affections that is built in us over the course of our lives. How we present a holy space that directs our attention to the heavenly is very important and requires every aspect of our imagination and attention to detail.

Today, the Protestant Church is somewhat allergic to the idea of habit because of its fascination with spontaneous worship. But we have to get over our reservations for repetition. We think repetition – engaging in habitual practice – is bad in the Church, but as Chronicles teaches us, we are liturgical ritualistic creatures and our desires are built. A clear issue today is that the form of the North American Church is neutral and the content is central. Churches are centered around sermons that are often constructed around three points, which begin with “cute” and what follows is a worship service that is disjointed because the lyrics of the songs are communicating ideas that often contradict one another as well as the sermon and the overall structure of the service. The reality is that we are not merely brains on a stick! We are highly influenced by the form! We’re not pre-programmed to love a particular thing; we learn to love. And how we learn what to love doesn’t come primarily from textbooks and sermons, but from the mundane habitual practices of our lives.  I think if we know why we’re doing what we’re doing as Christians, as members of the church of Jesus Christ, then our habits can have global implications. We will have a particular story and message that we identify in, and one that we can articulate to other people not merely through forced evangelical words that teach us and the community that our particular Christian vocation is to “save” everyone around us, but through the very manner in which we live our lives as a testament to our hope that this world is not yet as it surely will be.

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