In Praise of Predictability


“Every service is a structure of acts and words through which we receive a sacrament, or repent, or supplicate, or adore. And it enables us to do those things best–if you like it, it ‘works’ best–when, through long familiarity, we don’t have to think about it. As long as you notice, and have to count, the steps, you are not yet dancing but only learning to dance. A good shoe is a shoe you don’t notice… The perfect church service would be the one we were most unaware of; our attention would have been on God….

“But every novelty prevents this. It fixes our attention on the service itself; and thinking about worship is different from worshipping…

“A worse thing may happen. Novelty may fix our attention not even on the service but on the celebrant…

“Thus my whole liturgiological position really boils down to an entreaty for permanence and uniformity. I can make do with almost any kind of service whatever, if only it will stay put.”

[For the entire essay, click here and then click on p. 80]

Yesterday’s video brings up this issue for me. Lewis’s dancing analogy nails it. As long as I’m counting steps, I’m more focused on footwork than on dancing.

A good worship service is a delicate dance between the familiar and the unfamiliar. Too much “novelty,” as Lewis terms it, and I’m out. I get tired of guessing the tune, or feeling my way into the unfamiliar arrangement. I give up, and stand there, marking time till it’s over.

On the other hand, too little change, and you wind up like the Orthodox church.  Jonathan commented on the video below that their liturgy hasn’t changed in a millennium and a half. There is some beauty in that, but it becomes inaccessible to the masses. If you were a missionary in South America, you wouldn’t use the Greek Orthodox liturgy. You would translate it into forms and expressions relevant to your culture.  So in North America.

Worship expression must change as time goes on. I’ll grant that sometimes that change must be rapid–a true paradigm shift–as in a German-speaking church in a neighborhood that has transitioned to Spanish-speaking.  That situation calls for revolution.

But, in most cases, evolution will suffice. Add a new song. Introduce a variant element: baptism, child dedication, artwork, drama, dance, Lord’s supper… but don’t overdo it.  Keep returning to the bread and butter of good, familiar singing and good preaching… then go home.

Even the early church used the predicable pattern of synagogue worship. Singing. Scripture. Prayer. Offerings. Sermon.

There is something to be said for the predictable pattern of evangelical worship today. Yes, it makes for great parody, as the video demonstrates. But when done well, it leads us on a journey through praise, confession, celebration, and adoration. It laminates emotion to doctrine. Its predictability and its familiarity enable me to participate rather than spectate. I become worship’s performer to the degree I can enter in.  I don’t have to stutter step my way through worship. I know the songs. I know the liturgy. It’s all good.

So, how does that go?  “Opening song… this is the opening song…. big drums…”

And remember: make it contemporvant.


9 thoughts on “In Praise of Predictability

  1. My guess is contemporary-relevant. It’s gotta fit with our ways and styles of today or we can’t relate to it. (Do I win another book?)

  2. I wanna a book too! Waaaah!

    I did check out the video before, but guess I didn’t catch “contemporvant.” – Duh!

  3. I have a difficult enough time using words that are correct, much less than trying to understand made-up ones!

  4. The video below is so dead on. I have been working (and living) all over the country the last two years and it seems many churches use a similar format. As almost a permanent visitor, some consistency is comforting.

  5. Bill,
    Thanks for this post, as it resolves my frustration with the previous one. That video rings true for so many churches, but that doesn’t make those churches bad! The CS Lewis reference to liturgy is where my mind when immediately, when I first saw the video.

    The church, and particularly modern worship music, make great targets for satire. I’m all for it, as long as it’s loving, and within the family. Even the least “formal” or “programmed” churches have a structure to their services that provides familiarity and comfort to the attendees.

    Thanks again for sharing this position.


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