It’s apparently easier to tell than you might think. Late in 2013, the New York Times released an online test to determine what part of the country you come from, based solely on your dialect—that is, the way you pronounce certain words, or certain phrases that are specific to a given region. You can take the quiz for yourself, if you like. Go ahead. It’s surprisingly accurate; I was pegged as a D.C. resident, which is probably only because Hagerstown was lumped into the same region.
Think about what this means. Our environments have direct influence over the way we speak. And if these “regional dialects” are common to a particular time and place, then surely there are other parts of ourselves that are shaped by our environment.
We defined worship as the means by which we express and form our love. The “expressing” part seems obvious—we devote our time, money, energy toward some particular interest. But the “forming” may not be so obvious. What we worship changes who we are? Yep. And just like a “regional dialect,” it might affect us in ways we don’t even realize.
The word, of course, is liturgy. If you grew up in a more traditional church, the word “liturgy” might conjure up images of formal church practices: robes, candles, incense—that sort of thing. But the word “liturgy” simply refers to the system by which we worship. In his excellent book Desiring the Kingdom, James K. Smith defines “liturgies” as “rituals of ultimate concern that are formative of our identity—they both reflect what matters to us and shape what matters to us.” Smith argues that liturgies are everywhere—not just in church.
Think about the “liturgy” of the shopping mall. What goes on? You park your car. You walk to the entrance. Depending on your familiarity with the shopping center, you might stop at a mall directory to get your bearings. Then you stop at a handful of stores to compare prizes, styles, etc.
So what if you’re a guy? Football has a liturgy of its own. You throw on your Peyton Manning jersey. You hit the couch with a beer in time to catch a leggy starlet singing “waiting all day for Sunday night” as the players enter the temple—I mean stadium. And in between plays you are bombarded with commercial messages offering you a slice of the “good life” if you buy this, drive that, or stay tuned for the latest television debut.
It’s not that shopping or sports are negative. It’s just that left unchecked, the liturgies of consumerism and consumption can drive our focus inward toward self.
WORSHIP AS A “THICK” PRACTICE
In his book, Smith makes a distinction between what he calls “thick” and “thin” practices. Thin practices have little bearing on our character, but are instead “instrumental to some other end. They also aren’t the sort of things that tend to touch on our identity” (p. 82). Brushing one’s teeth, for example, has little to do with personal desire or character development. Thick practices, however, reveal and shape our deeper vales. “These are habits that play a significant role in shaping our identity, who we are. Engaging in these habit-forming practices not only says something about us, but also keeps shaping us into that kind of person.”
Think of it this way: which way is your heart slanted? Toward God and my neighbor? Or toward my own self-fulfillment? Granted, not every liturgy pushes me directly into sin, but might my actions make me more prone to loving self rather than loving others? Think of the “liturgy” of the cell phone. If I use my phone to screen unwanted calls or to avoid face-to-face interactions, is it possible that this “liturgy” causes my heart to be slanted toward self-interest? And, over time, I might find it harder and harder to experience empathy for others. Don’t write this off as mere alarmism—recent studies have found that young adults are less empathetic than any other generation, and its being attributed to the fact that young people have grown numb to the transient news reports that skip across social media like stones across a pond.
We need a new liturgy, a new “thick practice” to lift our eyes beyond the cold horizon of self and to expose us to the radiant glow of God’s glory. This is what Christian worship does for us; the Psalms merely serve as a set of guiderails, and offer us a new “regional dialect” that colors our speech and character.
So when we look at Psalm 100, we should not be surprised to find it loaded with imperatives—with commands.
A Psalm for giving thanks. Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth! 2 Serve the LORD with gladness! Come into his presence with singing! 3 Know that the LORD, he is God! It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. 4 Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise! Give thanks to him; bless his name! 5 For the LORD is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations. (Psalm 100:1-5)
I count at least seven distinct commands in a span of five verses. God is deeply concerned with the character of His people—so much so that He prescribes a lifetime of worship to make our character more like His own.
The problem, of course, is that this does not come at all naturally—nor all at once. Christian author N.T. Wright likens the process to learning a language or a new instrument:
“If learning virtue is like learning a language, it is also like acquiring a taste, or practicing a musical instrument. None of these ‘comes naturally’ to begin with. When you work at them, though, they begin to feel more and more ‘natural,’ until that aspect of your ‘character’ is formed so that, at last, you attain the hard-won freedom of fluency in the language, happy familiarity with the taste, competence on the instrument.” (Wright, After You Believe, p. 42)
This means that spiritual formation doesn’t happen on any given Sunday—it happens over a lifetime of Sundays. There is no substitute for deep spiritual commitment—nor is there any greater source of joy.