One of the questions Simon Chan brings up in his book Liturgical Theology is whether our doctrines are formed by our practices, or vice versa. Do our worship practices arises out of some “objective” or “neutral” doctrinal observations? Or do our doctrines about worship arise out of our experience of it?
Perhaps those on the Protestant end of the spectrum would be tempted to say that our doctrines should always shape our practice, and that the “subjectiveness” of practice should never be allowed to influence our doctrines. They may point to some of the worshiping of Mary in the Catholic church as proof of this: “See? That’s what happens when practice and experience is allowed to influence and shape doctrine.”
But others may see things differently: look at how the early church, in according worship to Jesus, used those experiences of worship to shape their christology. They found themselves worshiping Jesus before they had a doctrine for it. Their experience of worship shaped their doctrine of worship.
Chan’s point is that it’s a bit mysterious how the process works, but it seems that practice shapes belief, and belief shapes practice. Liturgy shapes doctrine, and doctrine shapes liturgy. They are in a necessarily dialectic relationship with one another. And they actually need one another as well. Theology that is divorced from the regular practice of Christian worship is cold and dry, and relegates God to the prison of abstract philosophizing and impersonal theory. But worship that is done without theological thinking tends to get sentimental and weak, reflecting not the glory of God but the trends of culture.
We see examples of both in the evangelical landscape today. Chan’s critique speaks for itself:
For the more doctrinaire evangelical, worship is only an [addendum] to the service, a kind of embellishment of what should be essentially an exercise in systematic indoctrination. In these churches the entire service may consist of a song to get the congregation ready, a very long and well prepared expository sermon, and another song to round it off. . . In this worship format, truth is not part of living worship but is almost exclusively confined to the sermon. Truth then becomes only a matter of right belief, and the worship service is essentially a time for instruction. The operating assumption is that teaching people the right things will lead to right living. There is no understanding of the formative role of the ecclesial community through ecclesial practice.
Among the more charismatically inclined, considerable attention is give to getting the congregation into a “worshipful atmosphere.” Here the emphasis is on practice. But no thought whatsoever is given to what impact such forms of worship might have on belief. The assumption is that they have none so long as no heresy is preached. What such Christians fail to realize is that when worship is not “right worship”, it won’t be long before belief itself is modified to fit a heterodox worship. . . Right belief and right practice (orthopraxis) can only come from right worship (orthodoxia), and vice versa.
I would contest his statement that “no thought whatsoever is given” in charismatic churches to how practice affects belief. I’ve done quite a lot of that kind of thinking myself, and I’ve worked in somewhat charismatic churches my whole life. But I do understand his point, that very often leaders assume that the structure and form of church life don’t carry any inherent message, when in fact everything we do carries a message.
What we do in worship sends a message, and if we aren’t careful to make sure we are worshiping “rightly,” we will eventually begin to believe whatever message our practices are sending us. We’ll start to think the point of gathering as the church is only for instruction, or perhaps we’ll start to think that the point of gathering as the church is just to get some spiritual goosebumps, to have a personal spiritual experience that fulfills me. In the process, we may completely forget about the glory of God, which is the subject of the next post in the series…