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Training bodies and hearts for God

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Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation
James K.A. Smith

Baker Academic, 2009
238 pages


Do you ever wish that your church’s worship rituals had the capacity to shape or influence the worldview of the participants? They do, according to James K.A. Smith, who believes that every worship liturgy is an education, highly influential in forming attitudes and desires. The issue at stake is, “what kind of education do our liturgies offer?”

Professor of philosophy and adjunct professor of congregational and ministry studies at Calvin College, Smith attempts, in Desiring the Kingdom, to articulate a new vision of spiritual formation through worship and Christian education. Because worship plays an integral part in spiritual formation, Smith addresses Christian educators, pastors, and worship leaders.

Smith is concerned that traditional Christian education doesn’t translate adequately into a way of living and leading in churches. The problem, he contends, is that we believe if we think right we’ll act right, and so we educate mainly our minds. He argues that we need to provide training for our hearts through our bodies so that our theology becomes embodied. We need to participate in practices that properly express our (cognitive) beliefs.

Rituals of Worship

Smith holds that it’s our imaginations – not our intellects – that carry our worldview. In his portrayal of the mall as a worship centre, he illustrates that when we become entranced by an image of a “flourishing life,” we begin to emulate or mimic that image. Through the rituals of planning trips to the mall, entering the doors, venerating the icons (the mannequins), giving (money), and receiving (merchandise), our desires become habituated. Hardly the biblical vision of God’s kingdom of shalom, the mall and other images (e.g. stadium, university) become cultural (worship) liturgies that take hold of the passions of our bodies and seep into our imaginations.

Because human beings are, at their core, lovers who are shaped in communities, Smith encourages church leaders to intentionally bring into worship planning those practices that have the potential to train congregations to desire the kingdom. “The rhythms and rituals of Christian worship are not the ‘expression of’ a Christian worldview,” he argues, “but are themselves an understanding…that cannot be had apart from the practices.”

In Chapter 5, Smith outlines various rhythms and rituals, and he invites leaders to come with fresh eyes to the exegesis of Christian worship to see if our practices truly represent the kingdom we desire. He suggests three questions for leaders: “What vision of human flourishing is implicit in the particular rituals I practice? What does the good life look like as imbedded in these cultural rituals? What sort of person will I become after being immersed in this or that cultural liturgy?”

Smith reminds us that grace is administered through sacramental means, offering a window into transcendent reality. Through our bodily senses, we taste wine, eat bread, smell incense (for some traditions). We see, sing, speak, hear, kneel, raise hands, etc.

I am always grateful to be reminded that God loves matter, created matter, and even became matter. My former occupation as a massage therapist contributes to my fascination with the bodily aspect of our humanness, but Smith’s views also mesh with Dallas Willard’s notion that regular practices become engrained in the neurological material of the brain and body.

Though some might question the value of ritual practices, after reading Smith’s book, I feel affirmed in my church’s practice of blending some elements of other traditions, (communal prayers, responses, confession, use of the lectionary, etc.) with MB traditions. I also feel inspired to use our bodies and imaginations even more creatively and intentionally in order to train our hearts to desire the kingdom.

Daphne Kamphuis is a member and a worship leader at Highland Community Church, Abbotsford, B.C.

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