Form Versus Formalism

Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your deeds, and I will let you dwell in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD’􏰂” (vv. 3–4).

- Jeremiah 7:1–29

Worship has always been a contentious subject for the church. Disagreements over worship sparked the Reformation, and they perpetuate church division today. Even in recent years, worship has been a point of contention among believers in the same denomination. Debates between those who advocate a “traditional” worship style and those who advocate “contemporary” worship continue and are unlikely to end soon.

If we were to listen in on these debates or to people describing the different styles of worship that churches practice, we may hear more traditional churches described as having a liturgical style of worship. In most cases, people who speak about a liturgical style of worship are referring, in reality, to a formal order of service with many set elements and a certain fixed nature to what is done in corporate worship. What such individuals may not be aware of is that there is really no such thing as a nonliturgical style of worship. The word liturgy simply means “order of service,” and every worship service has an order that is followed regardless of whether it is outlined in the church bulletin or prayer book.

In any case, when we are thinking about worship, we must not confuse formal worship with formalism. A church can have authentic worship that is quite formal and structured, but a church that engages in formalism has only the outward aspects of worship and not the engagement of the people’s hearts and minds in true praise of God. Formalism is the lack of engagement of heart and mind that we described a few days ago. This is the worship that consists merely of “going through the motions,” and to be fair, it is not a problem only for churches that worship according to a more traditional pattern. A church may have a liturgy that, looking in from the outside, seems quite informal but in which people nevertheless simply go through the motions, passing the time until they can leave and get home.

As we see in today’s passage, formalism has been a perennial problem for God’s people. In Jeremiah’s day, the nation of Judah as a whole trusted in the outward forms of religion such as the temple, believing that the mere presence of these things would guarantee God’s favor. They treated holy things as mere talismans or good luck charms (Jer. 7:1–4). But their hearts were not really engaged in worship, as seen in their mistreatment of those whom the Lord said they had to protect (vv. 5–7). Formalism is a problem of the heart, and only a change of heart can turn those who engage in rote worship into true worshipers of God.

Coram Deo

Church leaders cannot change our hearts, but they can help us avoid formalism by explaining what we do in worship and why. When we do not know the reasons and meaning for the different elements in the liturgy, we will easily disengage from it and think on other things.􏰁As church leaders explain elements of worship and encourage others to do the same, we are encouraged to be more aware of what we are doing and to put our hearts and souls into our praise of the Lord.

Passages for Further Study

1 Kings 15:9–24
Amos 5:21–24
Matthew 23:25–26
Romans 12:1

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