Variety may be the spice of life, but it’s not the substance.
And yet, given the way many of us evaluate the worship services at our churches, you’d think novelty was an essential mark of a healthy church.
The pull toward something “fresh” is understandable since your church’s worship service probably looks similar week-to-week. There’s singing, prayer, Scripture reading, a sermon. Throw in the Lord’s Supper, a benediction, a baptism, and maybe a couple other things, and you have the elements of most liturgies. The order may be flexible, but there’s consistency in what happens each week.
So, maybe it’s unavoidable to think on occasion, “Don’t we do this every week? Can we mix it up a little bit? Don’t we want it to stay fresh?”
We would do well in those moments to remember that the weekly routines we repeat in corporate worship by faith are doing far more than we can see or feel. When we know that, as we gather with the church, we may learn to see repetition as something to embrace rather than endure.
Repetition Is the Point
We all recognize the value of repetition in some areas. Consider a few examples.
If you’ve ever learned an instrument, you know that the way to learn it is to practice scales over and over until your fingers know the way. I haven’t played trumpet in almost twelve years, but the fingerings are still engrained in my mind and my hands.
“The weekly routines we repeat in corporate worship are doing far more than we can see or feel.”
Or, to borrow an illustration from James K.A. Smith, think about learning to drive. When you got your license, you had to think about every little maneuver: the blinker, the pedals, the mirrors, and all the rest. Now you could daydream through your entire commute without once consciously reflecting on your driving (please don’t, though).
The same goes for exercise. Anyone who says, “I don’t want exercising to become routine” clearly isn’t trying to get in shape. The routine is the point! It physically forms you into a different person.
Piano scales make a pianist. Hours behind the wheel make a driver. Weightlifting reps make muscles, and lots of miles make a runner. Routine and repetition aid us in so many ways, yet a lot of us seem allergic to similar habits in our weekly church worship gatherings.
But just as these individual habits do something to us, so it is with our congregational habits: they’re making us into something. God willing, they’re making us the right kind of peculiar.
Be a Good Citizen
The New Testament says Christians have been called out of the world to be, as the King James Version says, “a peculiar people” (1 Peter 2:9) — we are the “people possessed” by God in this world. Our lives should stick out, shining brightly in the darkness. The world needs us to be different.
But still, we are forgetful people. We sometimes feel “at home” in the world, and end up compromising our witness as a result.
“The things we repeat in worship Sunday after Sunday, year after year change us. They fit us for another world.”
This is where our church gatherings come in. Once a week, we come together to repeat our corporate practices and remember that we’re strangers in this life, and that we belong to another kingdom. The routines of our churches help, by God’s Spirit, to form us into more faithful citizens of that kingdom. The strange repetitions push us down the path of peculiarity.
At this point, you might think, “Nothing strange happens at my church.” I beg to differ.
Fit for Another Kingdom
Take congregational singing, for example. Where else do you do anything like this? Maybe a national anthem here and there, but you’re not singing toward a flag on Sunday morning. On Sunday morning, a diverse group lifts their voices and hearts to the unseen God through song. Now zoom out for a second and consider the scene. It’s strange.
Or, consider the sermon. A man gets up, opens an ancient book and preaches from it for a considerable amount of time. In a culture that craves what’s current, we submit ourselves to narratives and wisdom and epistles written thousands of years ago because we believe it’s God’s word that is “at work” in us (1 Thessalonians 2:13).
Doing this Sunday after Sunday, month after month, year after year, changes us. As with the habits we described earlier, our corporate routines — the singing, listening, confessing, praying — fit us for another world.
Paradox of Peculiarity
But herein lies the paradox: our biblical habits are strange to the world, and yet they do not simply make us strangers to the world; rather, our weekly repetitions make us more effective in reaching it. By the Spirit, weekly worship can form us and keep us as salt and light of the kingdom of God able to salt and light the world (Matthew 5:13–16).
We won’t win the world by looking like it or by fitting in, but by being different — by our peculiarity. We’ll bear fruit in this life when our roots are firmly planted in the coming new earth. As C.S. Lewis said, history shows that “the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next.” And one of the main ways this happens is through the rhythms and repetitions worked into our weekly gatherings.
“We won’t win the world by looking like it, or by fitting in, but by being different.”
So, as your church gathers for worship this weekend, appreciate anew what’s happening, how the strange rituals — the “rhythms of grace,” as Mike Cosper calls them — are making you more faithful and more fruitful.
One day, the kingdom of this world will become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and our lives won’t be peculiar anymore. The light of our lives will be swallowed in the radiance of the Son.
Until then, practice your peculiarity, and let it shine.