The first time I saw a liturgical statement in my local Target store it stopped me in my tracks. There on the wall was a call to worship, crafted by the high priests of consumption culture and chiselled (ok, painted) onto stone:
Yes, Mr and Mrs Average Australian shopper buying socks and jocks at twenty per cent off, that means you! Of course Target doesn’t need you to recite their vision statement, much less memorise it. Its true power lies in you enacting it, letting its assertions shape your habits and expectations, acquiescing to its view about what you should expect out of life. It is, as Jamie Smith calls in his book Desiring The Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation, a “cultural liturgy”. And as with all liturgies, its aim is to trump competing liturgies for your affections.
Now, lest I be misheard, I should define some terms. By ‘liturgy’ I don’t simply mean a bunch of words that you read about God in a traditional Christian meeting—to put it crassly. It means more than that. It means more than that because even that bunch of words we read about God are designed to shape our practices and habits. Liturgies announce truths that we then enact in our lives; or don’t. And the aim of any liturgy is to, as Jamie Smith states, “trump other liturgies”: to make them the guiding force in your practices as opposed to anything else. And once you realise that, you can see how our culture is positively full of liturgy—from the ads that sell us wares, to the self-help books that set us our goals in life. And as we practice these liturgies, they become self-fulfilling and habit forming.
So, notice above that in relation to liturgy, I said “affections”. Smith, in echoing Augustine, labels humans homo liturgicus. We are at our core, worshippers; shaped more by what we want than by what we know. That we are so shaped means at least this: liturgy is something we do. Smith says the key to a triumphant liturgy is that we end up doing what it says. And the very doing of it is self-sustaining and self-affirming. Liturgy believed is liturgy enacted, and liturgy is believed just that little bit more every time it is enacted.
Gospel workers in the Western world must grasp this reality. Whether or not you are in a denomination with formal liturgy, what we do when God’s people gather is not simply offer a liturgy, but a competing liturgy. The aim of gospel ministry is to present God’s people with a desire that trumps other desires. Of course this will necessitate knowing as well as wanting, but without the wanting the knowing slides off like Teflon.
As a church planter my experience is that even with a core team that wants to plant with you, it isn’t until you start to compete with alternate cultural liturgies, that you get any sense of what you are up against. The core team may sign off on all the values and visions you have laid down on your funky new website before you even start, but those first two or three years of planting will reveal much about the beast that is homo liturgicus.
I suspect that while every Australian believes they have the right to look good and feel good, even more deeply ingrained is the view that every Australian has the right to determine how they use their time. And because time is so precious—especially so for middle-class busy Western Christians—suggesting how they use their time, time that happens to include their Sunday mornings after a busy week, is a competing call to worship!
With discipleship the buzzword for the church today, I have come to the conclusion that the foundation stone of discipleship for young modern Christians is not prayer or Bible reading or even mission/evangelism. They will do these things; if they have the time! But simply turning up? Week in? Week out? Carving out that time in a world that competes for it with kids’ parties, school sports, weekends away? That’s where the sparks tend to fly these days. The modern, busy, western family worships primarily at the altar of time.