Perhaps one of the best ways to help us contemplate how behavior is shaped in the way that I have been explaining over the past several weeks is by considering the nature of behavior as we discussed it a few weeks back. I have suggested that culture is the behavior of a people. It is the ergon of a laos. And what do you get when you combine laos and ergon? What are we talking about when we consider the “work of a people”? Laos + ergon = leitourgia. The behavior of a people is shaped by its liturgies.
Evangelicals today tend to be a bit skittish about liturgy—especially Baptists. But I would like to suggest that it is primarily through our liturgies that we shape the culture—the behavior—of a people. And so if conservative Christians desire to impact culture, then conservative Christians must give attention to the matter of liturgy.
This requires that we understand the nature of liturgy. As I have already indicated, at its root, leitourgia is simple a compound word comprised of laos—“people” and ergon—“work.” Etymologically the term simply refers to any public work, and as we have already seen, “work” used in this way is nearly equivalent to what we mean by “culture.” In its older broad sense, leitourgia referred to any behavior that was not private, works done in public as a member of the community. The term was used to describe military or political service, for example. Later, leitourgia came to refer specifically to public works of worship to God, primarily due to its use in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint (LXX).1 The LXX translators deliberately chose this term to uniquely denote the formal service of the priests on behalf of the people of God, and they used it almost exclusively for that kind of work in contrast to other public works. We are going to look at this more narrow use of the idea in a moment, but first I would like to focus on liturgy considered broadly.
Liturgies have several characteristics. The first two are embedded in the root words themselves. First, liturgies are behaviors; they are works. They are informed by beliefs, and they are reflections of values, but at their essence, liturgies are what we do. This is why I am arguing that liturgy is so essentially connected to culture.
Yet not all actions are liturgies. The second characteristic of liturgies is that they are the people’s work—they are communal behaviors. This is exactly how I have defined culture.
But not all communal behaviors—not all culture—is liturgy. The third characteristic of liturgies is that they are a kind of ritual. In other words, they are habitual practices; liturgies do the same thing over and over again. This point is likely the biggest reason many evangelicals squirm at the mention of liturgy. For a number of reasons, evangelicals have been conditioned to see habitual, repetitious ritual as inauthentic, hypocritical, and ultimately “vain repetition.” Yet it is this very quality that makes liturgies so powerful in cultivating behavior. Consider again the problem with viewing discipleship as only data transmission. Holy living is a skillset that Christians must develop, and such skillsets require practice. What is practice if not ritual? It is doing the same action over and over again, not as an end in itself, but toward the end of developing skill. Repetition is not a deficiency of liturgy; it is actually liturgy’s greatest strength. Many times the aversion to liturgy is that it is just going through the motions; but there is virtue to going through the motions. Going through the motions is not a mark of hypocrisy; going through the motions is a mark of maturity. It is, indeed, certainly possible to perform a ritual in a way that renders it vain repetition. But rituals in themselves are not inherently vain; rather they are necessary for the formation of virtue. Anyone can tell the difference between a piano student who is running through her scales just because she has to and one who is performing the repetitious exercise with intentionality because she knows that it is through such a ritual that she will become a better pianist.
The goal is that after practicing the scale or the swing over and over again, you will be able to perform it without even thinking, and this solves the second problem with viewing discipleship as only the transmission of doctrine: most of our daily actions result not from deliberate choice but from the habits we have formed through ritual. The issue is not whether we will be formed by liturgy, but which liturgies will form us. Much of how we act—much of our culture—has developed through rituals. Most people have a particular morning routine. That routine may or may not be informed originally by deliberate choices, but regardless, people eventually perform the same morning rituals without really thinking about it. From driving to work to typing on a computer to making the coffee, most of human behavior has been shaped by habitual practices.
- H. Strathman, “λειτουργία,” TDNT 4:219. [↩]