C.S. Lewis, in his Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, writes, “Novelty, simply as such, can have only an entertainment value. And [people] don’t go to church to be entertained. They go to use the service, or, if you prefer, to enact it. Every service is a structure of acts and words through which we receive a sacrament, or repent, or supplicate, or adore. And it enables us to do these things best – if you like, it ‘works’ best – when, through long familiarity, we don’t have to think about it. As long as you notice, and have to count the steps, you are not yet dancing but only learning to dance. A good shoe is a shoe that you don’t notice. Good reading becomes possible when you need not consciously think about eyes, or light, or print, or spelling. The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God.”
The analogy that Lewis uses is a good one, and raises two immediate points.
First, learning to dance takes practice. Second, it means practicing the same steps over and over again. Anything worth doing requires a certain amount of effort, and yet there seems to be an unspoken rule that that principle should not apply to the worship practices of the church. As a result, in the name of accessibility or being user-friendly, the worship of the church has devolved into something that ultimately hinders worship (see Erik Parker’s post: Praise Bands are the New Medieval Priests). The public worship of God is the most important activity in which the church engages in each week, and therefore necessitates practiced participation.
One of the common objections against a set liturgy, or the repetition of certain elements from week to week, is that it can become rote and people will simply go through the motions without thinking. However, the same accusation can be leveled against a less-structured liturgy in which the worshiper does not know what to expect next. If he is always having to count the steps, then when does he ever really start dancing? Routine and ritual come naturally to us, and enable us to perform any number of tasks with greater efficiency and skill. Baseball players makes use of rituals, especially pitchers and batters, as a means to aid mental relaxation and focus. The batter takes a certain number of practice swings, adjusts his batting gloves in between pitches, and then gets his bat in position after digging into the batter’s box. Similarly, a pitcher will go through his routine of rubbing the ball, walking off of the mound, adjusting his hat, taking a deep breath, and so forth. A basketball player has similar rituals when shooting free throws, bouncing the ball a certain number of times before making his attempts. Likewise, a tennis player will go through the same motions during his service game, bouncing the ball a set number of times before a first or a second serve. All of these routines are practiced, and enhance the doing of the activity. Even more, it is the regular practicing of the correct motion, swing, and form time and time again that results in a measure of competency in any given sport. The muscle memory must be developed so that the movement becomes second nature, and can simply be done. The dance steps need to be repeatedly practiced for dancing to occur.
Ritual and routine in worship are not detrimental to worship, but are a fundamental necessity for worship to take place. Worshiping the Triune God rightly takes practice, and the use of a set liturgy enables worshipers of all ages to not only learn how to do that, but to do it. Time and energy are readily given to learn how to play a sport, master proper exercise technique, ascertain skills to play an instrument, or become a capable dancer. How much more so the principal service in which the church is to be engaged on a weekly basis?