The Importance of Going through the Motions

PianoAny musician will tell you there’s nothing particularly exciting about practicing scales. It can be one of the most boring and rote aspects of a musician’s routine, but the path to virtuosity requires every aspiring student to go through the motions (ad nauseam!) until they become second nature. Whether it’s the novice student learning the correct fingering for the C Major scale or the professional playing advanced variations, musicians never outgrow their need to stay grounded in the basics.

The same goes for Christians. As Luther said with respect to the Catechism:

“But for myself I say this: I am also a doctor and preacher, yea, as learned and experienced as all those may be who have such presumption and security; yet I do as a child who is being taught the Catechism, and every morning, and whenever I have time, I read and say, word for word, the Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Psalms, etc. And I must still read and study daily, and yet I cannot master it as I wish, but must remain a child and pupil of the Catechism, and am glad so to remain,” (Large Catechism, Introduction, 7–8). 

One of the major complaints about the liturgy is that it’s too rote, a boring and useless going through of the motions. As it turns out, that’s actually one of the liturgy’s greatest strengths. Like an aspiring piano student, the liturgy keeps us grounded in the essentials of the Christian faith, teaching us who God is, how we stand in relation to him, and how to confess, pray, and receive His gifts, so that these things become second nature. Like scales to the musician, the liturgy is essential to Christian maturity.

This is an area where contemporary worship falls flat on its face. For all of the emphasis contemporary worship leaders put on prayer & praise, their services don’t actually teach or do those things very well. They provide no consistent model for prayer since the liturgies are always changing. Prayers are almost exclusively ex corde (the Lord’s Prayer being the major exception) and tend to be long-winded and theologically shallow. The emphasis of praise songs is often on the one doing the praising instead of on the one (allegedly) being praised.[1] As a result, very little praise typically takes place in these services.

By contrast, the liturgy provides us with theologically substantive, orthodox prayers and hymns. They actually get the job done (by confessing the objective truth He has revealed to us about who He is and what He has done for us) and at the same time provide a model for emulation. Apparently Jesus Himself thought highly of rote prayer, especially commending to us the Our Father and book of Psalms. The Psalms, in particular, serve as a “language training manual—an affective, embodied means of training our speech… which [challenge] us to practice forms of faithful speech to God that we are not likely to try on our own.”[2]

Related to this is the common complaint that the liturgy is too foreign, too inaccessible to the modern Christian. Contemporary worship, it is alleged, makes the Christian faith much more accessible. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is true that contemporary worship will likely be very comfortable and accessible to the total stranger. This is because it waters down the Christian faith, strips it of essential nutrients, and presents us with little more than a Jesufied version of secular culture.[3] Nothing needs to be learned because nothing is taught. Contemporary worship may “meet you where you are”, but it will also leave you there.

It is precisely that which strikes the uncatechized as foreign which makes the liturgy so valuable. Since our language and thought patterns need to be trained (Romans 12:2), there is something terribly wrong with any liturgy that makes the first time visitor feel entirely at home. Some things will be necessarily peculiar at first. Fortunately, like learning a C major scale, the liturgy becomes quite familiar after a short period of time. Nothing influences our understanding of the Christian faith and life more than the way we worship, for better or worse. As a liturgical catechism, nothing does this better than the Divine Service. Lex orandi, lex credendi. 

Students don’t sit down at the piano and know how to play scales immediately; they need to be taught. Boring though the repetition may be, they never outgrow their need to keep going through the motions. Likewise, Christians require catechesis when it comes to worship and prayer (St. Luke 11:1). But unlike scales which are made up of nothing more than (boring) notes on a staff, the liturgy is comprised of the Word of God. It’s true that the repetition can dull us to the wonder of what’s going on, but even when that happens, at least the liturgy keeps us going through the right motions.


[1] Smith writes: “Worship is not for me–it’s not primarily meant to be an experience that “meets my felt needs… rather, worship is about and for God. To say that God is both subject and object is to emphasize that the triune God is both the audience and the agent of worship: it is to and for God, and God is active in worship in the Word and sacraments,” Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 150. He continues, “Consider the number of worship choruses that make “I” (the worshipper) the subject of the sentence rather than God. Thus, unwittingly, we actually end up singing about ourselves—our devotion, our worship, our surrender—rather than about God,” (150). One of the most ironic examples of this is Matt Redman’s “The Heart of Worship”, a song which apparently recognizes this problem, but nevertheless ends up being all about what him and what he has done to worship. Despite Redman’s insistence that he is “coming back to the heart of worship”, he says virtually nothing about who Jesus is and what He does for us (which is the heart of worship), but remains fixed on himself throughout the song.

[2] Smith, Kingdom, 172.

[3] For more discussion on this point, see Smith, Kingdom, 150, 170, 221–225.

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