Church feels pretty weird at the moment. It’s strange to do church from home. It’s sad to be able to gather only on Zoom. But I’ve found it really helpful to remember that church is still the primary place of our Christian formation. James K.A. Smith's book Desiring the Kingdom helps us show why.
Loving to Live
What we love shapes how we live. In particular, we all have a vision of “the good life” that we live for. Smith’s claim is that this vision of the good life is formed by our habits (our unconscious decisions), and our habits are formed by our practices (our repeated bodily activities). We’re shaped by liturgy - not a word you often hear at The Globe Church, but one Smith uses to describe all our habit-forming practices.
The TV we watch, the songs we hear, even the coffee we smell is making us desire a certain good life – a vision influenced by consumerism, sex, and comfort. These “cultural liturgies” form us not because they’re rational, but because they appeal to our bodies. Their vision of the good life seeps into our consciousness through unconscious, ritual use. In other words, we can’t help being shaped by them. The world is constantly shaping us, and that is why being a Christian can often feel difficult.
What we need then is the liturgy of the church - practices and habits which make us love the good life of God’s Kingdom, not the world. Church isn’t just about feeding our minds, but our whole bodies (look what comes first in Romans 12:1-2!) - only then will we be effectively formed as Christians.
Liturgy to Love
In a Coronavirus world, church must continue to be the place of our formation. Let me briefly sketch why it is worth attending church at the moment.
1. We hear scripture read, and come to identify the Bible story as our story. Smith writes, “The moment of Scripture reading and proclamation of the Word in preaching is the most intense or explicit moment for the articulation of this story.” Hearing God’s Word helps us find ourselves within the ongoing narrative of God and his people.
2. We taste the Lord’s supper, the body and blood of Jesus. As one body we feast together, remembering Christ’s death and simultaneously tasting the future heavenly banquet. Although we are now unable to have the Lord’s supper, realising its importance reminds us to long for it.
3. Finally, church starts the week. Sunday often feels like the end of the weekend, but in reality it’s the start - a weekly Easter Sunday, sending us into the world as people formed through the power of Jesus’s death and resurrection.
These examples merely scratch the surface of how gathering as God’s people forms us. But, if we want to be formed for the Kingdom rather than the world, participation in the church is essential - not least in these strange times. Even when looking at another screen or joining another Zoom call is exhausting, be encouraged that God is still using it to shape us into his disciples.
James K. A. Smith, Desiring The Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation, Cultural Liturgies 1 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009); for his popular version of the same material, see James K. A. Smith, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2016).
This was recently captured very well in the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma.
Smith, Desiring The Kingdom, 194–97.