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Lewis, liturgy as dance, and the regulative principle

Some time ago, I posted a link here to one of my favorite quotes from the eminently quotable C. S. Lewis. Lewis offers a comparison between liturgy and dance: both must be learned, he suggests, so that when they are employed, they needn’t be thought about. When dancing (I suppose, not having any experience here myself), you do not want to have to give your attention to the dance steps; you want to give your attention to the one with whom you are dancing. In the same way, a learned liturgy allows us to give our attention, not to the liturgy, but to the one we have come to worship.

(Side note: I think there is another Lewis quote along the same lines, in which he notes the caution that, having learned the dance, it is possible then to not think of the dance steps or the person with whom you are dancing, but of something else altogether. In worship, this is the very real danger of formalism: having the liturgy ingrained, we attend to neither it nor the Lord, but to the thousand other things that suggest themselves during the hour.)

I want to make one further point from Lewis’s analogy. It is easy for us who advocate traditional or conservative worship to find support in Lewis’s words: we are the ones fighting novelty in worship, and here is Lewis castigating novelty in worship. Hurray for us! But there is a problem: many of us find ourselves in situations in which we are seeking to introduce conservatism to those unaccustomed to it. What we are introducing is not novel in any historical sense. But it is novel to our congregations, to our people. And if so, its introduction will have exactly the same intrusive, awkward, and disruptive effect that Lewis describes. They will be thinking about the form, and not about Christ. This is an enormous problem, which we must take seriously, without being evasive.

It is serious, and when we adjust the familiar liturgy, it is unavoidable. If it is serious and unavoidable (assuming we are making changes), we had better have some good justification for introducing change. It is never a light matter to disrupt the worship of Christ. Change, even good change, disrupts. Even welcome, appreciated change (which is not common) is problematic on this account: to learn a new hymn (even if you love it) is to give your attention, at least initially, to the hymn.

So ought we abandon the thought of introducing new old things? I don’t believe so. Let me offer a few points of explanation.

  • If new people are coming to our church, something about our worship will undoubtedly feel left-handed to them (or, to continue the dancing imagery, as though they have two left feet). This is especially true of the newly converted: what is natural to them is quite unlikely to be deeply sanctified, for the simple reason that their exposure to the Word and Spirit is likely to have been minimal. All this suggests that some awkwardness is unavoidable in worship, even if the forms remained completely static. This awkwardness, then, cannot be always and everywhere immoral.
  • While Lewis’s admonition is wise and merits a hearing, it is not law. We could all imagine scenarios in which the worship of a given group of Christian is so aberrant that some changes must be introduced. Assuming here a Protestant audience, we would not long permit the practice of public prayers to Mary and the saints during the corporate worship time, even if such were the time-honored practice of the church that we just arrived at. There are obviously times that changes to the liturgy must be introduced; this also indicates that changes are not always a bad idea. Thus, the reference to the regulative principle in the title: Scripture, not Lewis, regulates the worship in Christ’s church.
  • Nonetheless, Lewis’s caution is weighty; we must seek to minimize the awkwardness, the distraction, of altered worship. As an example, Kevin argued in a recent Nick essay that new songs should not be introduced on a Sunday morning; this, in general, seems like profitable counsel. I would add that, as much as is possible, teaching and consensus should precede implementation of new forms of worship.
  • A final caution: a “successful” move toward conservatism can, at times, be akin to the newly minted Calvinist: the delight has ceased to be in Christ, but in the new thing (whether Calvinism or the hymnody). If we introduce changes, we must do so with vigilance against our churches becoming delighted in their own worship. What an evil thing to find that in our very worship, purportedly to honor God, we have transformed it into a time to delight in ourselves!

About Michael Riley

Student of theology, apologetics, and Christian affections. Pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, Wakefield, Michigan.