My heritage as a Christian lies in a radically low church group, the acapella churches of Christ, that tends to scorn formal liturgies as empty and meaningless (though we practice weekly communion and stress baptism heavily). Most of us when I was growing up had little experience and less knowledge of such practices, and suspicion of them was thus fairly baseless. However, we did occasionally have members who had left a more formal church, departed Catholics or Lutherans. And in fact these folks tended to speak of the practices of their former churches much as the rest of us did, as stultifying, rigid, “going through the motions.”
Whatever merits informal, revivalist worship may have (and I believe it does have merits, perhaps especially at its historical origins), the critique of the very concept of formal Christian liturgy as vain repetition does not stand up to serious inquiry into the history or theology of Christian practices. Yet it does mark an apologetic or catechetical problem for formal churches, as shown by the experiences of my fellow congregants who left Catholicism or Lutheran congregations to join a Church of Christ. These folks grew up in movements that I now tend to envy for their intellectual and spiritual riches, yet they perceived their services as just as empty and meaningless as low-church revivalist types said they were. This was a misconception, but one that I have encountered more than a few times among folks who should have been taught better. Lacking knowledge about the roots and meaning of Christian practices or a strong social tie to the church, many people evidently do find the formal liturgy dull, repetitious, or incomprehensible. That’s how they end up attending a Church of Christ, where the worship practices are simpler and more accessible to the modern mind—though more often I suspect they simply end up out of church altogether.
Although it may be that this state of affairs benefits my tradition in terms of the raw numbers of attendees, I think wise pastors and evangelists would prefer to welcome members who understand what they are leaving behind. And moreover, a Christian shouldn’t take pleasure in decline that happens in other churches. “If one member suffers, all suffer.”
This, among other reasons, is why I welcome books like my friend Ben Dueholm’s Sacred Signposts, a slim, readable treatment of Christian practices aimed at helping believers understand the power of Word and Sacrament: to create new habits, reshape the everyday, or foster a radical community. I don’t think Dueholm’s intention in writing the book is to help keep people in his Lutheran church—the book is not a sales pitch, and it does not strain with attempts to ingratiate itself to the unsympathetic. But I hope it may help in that effort nonetheless, for what the book does show with energy and passion is that the formal practices of the church (what Dueholm terms the “holy possessions” of the church, following Luther) are far from meaningless, but that they have much to offer the Christian who pays them the attention they deserve.
In this, Sacred Signposts ought to be read alongside two other recently published works: James K. A. Smith’s You Are What You Love, and Tish Harrison Warren’s Liturgy of the Ordinary. Each book provides an account of the meaning and power of Christian worship practices, relating them to spiritual and moral growth as well as community formation. Making the case for Christian practices among the more traditional/formal churches—Dueholm’s Lutherans, Smith’s Reformed churches, or Warren’s Anglicans—appears to be a bit of a cottage industry at the moment. I suspect the service is needed.
Dueholm’s contribution to the industry is distinctive in a couple ways that I’ll mention briefly. First, though the book stresses practices that are common to many traditions, Dueholm’s Lutheran heritage shows in his frequent use of Luther and Lutheran theology. However, the book is not written as insider discourse for Lutherans—it rather offers Lutheran thought as a gift to the wider church, a rhetorical move I (as an ecumenical Campbellite-cum-Anglican) found perfectly congenial. Second, among the three books I cited, Dueholm has easily the greatest gift for prose style and a compelling turn of phrase. Smith’s style is clear and crisp and Warren’s is concrete and personal, but only Dueholm has the stylistic creativity to term the clergy “expatriates from the kingdom of usefulness” or Scripture “the archive of the inconsequential.” He concerns himself with “brutally ordinary things” in an “economy of giving a damn.” These are more than stylistic flourishes: Scripture and the liturgy themselves teach us that good words, carefully crafted words, have power. Saying “The Lord be with you” rather than “Hi, everybody” matters. Dueholm’s ability to name Christian practices with fresh and memorable language is thus a valuable gift—these phrases are already sticking with me, enriching my thinking.
The Christian practices that make up Dueholm’s “holy possessions”—Word and Sacrament, baptism and ordination, confession and forgiveness, prayer and worship—are far from meaningless. Even if one stresses a less formal expression of these practices, Christians of whatever tradition ought not to dismiss them as empty, but rather should know at least a bit about why the church has found them valuable. Dueholm’s fresh language helps there, revealing Christian practices as more than going through the motions, but as a holy gifts that enliven the people of God.
Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book and Ben follows me on Twitter, so it’s likely historians will look back on this review as fatally compromised by a partisan spirit.