Constance Cherry on Ritual, an Excerpt from The Special Service Worship Architect

The following is an excerpt from the first chapter of The Special Service Worship Architect, by Constance M. Cherry.

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Ritual

An authoritative event, sanctioned by the church, which uses formalized actions, words, gestures, and symbols that are repeated to enable some particular aspect of the corporate worship of God.

Things to Note

Cover ArtALL WORSHIPPING COMMUNITIES EMPLOY RITUALS

Every worshiping community employs rituals to enable their worship, regardless of their history or tradition. Even those worshipers who are rooted in a very free and spontaneous tradition use actions, words, and gestures that are repeated in order to facilitate their experience of worship. Repeated actions, words, and gestures used by any community to enable some aspect of the worship of God are considered rituals. The question will not be whether we have or use rituals but the degree to which we reflect on and employ the rituals that we use in worship so that they glorify God and edify believers.

THEY’RE OLDER THAN YOU THINK

Worship rituals are not practices that originated over the past several hundred years of Western church history. Though every religion known to humankind employs ritual, our use of ritual is rooted in the Judeo-Christian practices we claim in the Old and New Testaments. Even a cursory reading of the Old Testament yields an astounding number of examples of worship rituals ordered by God to maintain the relationship between Israel and Yahweh. These include such things as circumcision, purification rites, entrance rites to the temple, sacrifices, offerings, and seasonal observances. Carefully constructed rituals, given by God, were the central features of Jewish worship.

Many of these do not carry forward to the New Testament; yet it is clear from the apostles’ writings that while many rituals changed or were no longer needed, the early church nevertheless was not “rituals free.” There too we find repeated actions and words that became necessary for Christian worship from God’s point of view. This is seen, for instance, in the commands surrounding the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:17–34), 6 the act of corporate prayer (see 1 Tim. 2:1–4), the giving of offerings for those in need (see 1 Cor. 16:1–4), and so on.

The new community was expected to repeat these rituals to enable worship, though the manner varied from place to place. As various rituals developed and were formalized, certain features became normative and were passed on for widespread use.

RITUALS HAVE SPECIAL FEATURES

Rituals commonly share certain important features; I will highlight three. First, sacred rituals have significance—they are not “just actions and words.” Worship rituals employ actions, words, gestures, and symbols in such a way that they express a deeper meaning than what is evident on the surface. Something profound is being experienced in these agents of communication, even if one holds a nonsacramental view of sacred actions.

I was raised in a tradition that referred to baptism and the Lord’s Supper as ordinances. (“Sacrament” and “ordinance” will be explained soon—hold on!) While we did not conceive of these actions as conveying any divine activity, even as a child I can remember experiencing a profound sense of the presence of Christ as I knelt at a Communion rail with other believers to receive bread and juice. For me those occasions were not void of God’s activity in my young heart; they were extremely significant in advancing my spiritual journey. Regardless of your view of God’s role in rituals practiced by the church, never make the mistake of underestimating the power of God-ordained rituals to communicate a spiritual truth and grace well beyond the words and actions themselves.

©2013 by Constance M. Cherry. Published by Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

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