The Role of Ritual in Christian Worship

“It’s just a meaningless ritual!”

Among Christians, the word “ritual” is often perceived negatively because of associations with activities considered irrational, “pagan” or outdated. Some people give more importance to the inner attitudes “of the heart” than to outward, ritual actions.

Liturgical scholar Frank C. Senn defines ritual as “a pattern of behaviour that expresses and forms a way of life consistent with a community’s beliefs and values.” Ritual is a part of everyday life. Schoolchildren raise the school flag, say the pledge, and sing the national anthem. Nations celebrate their founding or independence days with parades and speeches. These actions take place with regularity, and express and form communal values in students and citizens.

There is thus no such thing as a “meaningless” ritual, since rituals carry meaning. The real question is whether a ritual is relevant to a group, and in the case of Christians, relevant to the Church’s gospel.

The roots of ritual in Christian worship are biblical. The people of Israel celebrated their deliverance from slavery with the Passover, a ritual meal that evoked their faith and re-formed them into the people of God. Jesus participated in synagogue life as a guest preacher (Luke 4), and celebrated the Passover with his disciples.

The Church focuses on two rituals: baptism and communion. The former expresses a believer’s death and resurrection with Christ (Rom 6), that is, conversion from an old way of life and acceptance of the gospel. In the latter, baptised Christians share Christ’s body and blood, entering into intimate communion with Christ such that they are formed into His earthly body, both in terms of faith and ethical practice.

Of course, rituals can become problematic. The 16th century reformers argued that the Lord’s Supper of their day was not celebrated as a gracious gift as Christ intended, but had become a “good work” offered to God to gain His favour.

The Church of every age will perceive that some rituals have become distorted and distorting. However, rituals are rightly discarded only when they no longer proclaim the saving mercy of God in Jesus Christ, that is, when they have become ways to glorify and justify ourselves before God. Accordingly, ritual reform cannot be rooted in popular tastes, opinions or trends, for none of these are equivalent to the pure Word of God.

Finally, what if Christians become bored with liturgical rituals? The answer is hardly to discard rituals altogether. There may be a problem of expectations. For example, they might expect worship to entertain or provide an emotional high, when they should be coming to worship services to glorify God. A second possible problem is that people are not taught to value rituals.

Of course, it is hard to value any ritual that is done in a careless or sloppy manner! Nevertheless, an important task of Christian formation is to make worshippers ritually aware and competent so that they might worship with heart and mind.

Senn, Frank. Christian Liturgy: Catholic and Evangelical. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1997.

Jeffrey A. Truscott is an ordained minister of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. He currently serves as Lecturer in Liturgy and Worship at Trinity Theological College, where he is also the Chaplain.

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