Forms and Their Communication

“All things should be done decently and in order.”

- 1 Corinthians 14:40

Formalism or ritualism is always a threat to authentic worship. Throughout Scripture, for example, we find many warnings given to those who follow the prescribed worship practices with precision and yet do not bear the fruits of obedience to the moral law of God (Jer. 7:1–4; Matt. 23). At times, the Word of God even seems to suggest that given the choice between obedience to the moral law and following the prescribed rituals, you choose obedience to the moral law (1 Sam. 15:22–23; Amos 5:21–24). However, such presentations are examples of hyperbole to help people pay attention to what they have been missing. Scripture’s solution is actually to connect heart devotion and obedience to the prescribed practices. Ezekiel 36; 40–48, for example, describes Israel’s renewal as involving changed hearts and proper ritual practice even if those rituals are symbolic of the work of Christ. In other words, the prophets do not see the rituals themselves as inherently bad. The trouble is mere outward conformity to practices without an inner commitment to what the practices signify.

In an effort to avoid formalism and ritualism, some Christians have moved away from “high church” liturgies such as we might find in Anglicanism or Lutheranism in favor of “low church,” less elaborate services often associated with independent or nondenominational worship. But even simpler orders of service are still liturgies. Even the Quakers, whose gatherings consist of sitting in silence until someone feels moved to speak, follow a liturgy—a plan for worship—because they have agreed to a system wherein they are quiet until “moved by the Spirit.” And wherever you have a form or ritual, it is possible to go through the motions in a formalistic or ritualistic way. Our propensity for mere rote worship does not change simply by the altering of external forms, and we are all capable of putting on a show even when our hearts are not in what we are doing.

No matter the theological tradition from which we come, all worship involves art forms, and all forms communicate something. The form of a liturgy may communicate the belief that God desires simplicity or that He prizes complexity. A plainly decorated worship sanctuary may tell us that visual beauty is not especially prized by the Lord while an elaborately decorated sanctuary may convey that God values visual beauty. The design of our buildings can communicate whether we see worship as having a kind of “entertainment value.” Whatever form we use, we are sending a message.

Coram Deo

Though we may not always be conscious of it, all of our forms communicate something. That is why it is important for our leaders to think carefully about what they do in worship and how they do it. It is also important for us to think about the forms we participate in as worshipers. Knowing what they communicate can help us be more knowledgeable worshipers.

Passages for Further Study

Numbers 4
Nehemiah 8
Matthew 6:5–6
John 4:24
John 6:41–59

First published in Tabletalk Magazine, an outreach of Ligonier. For permissions, view our Copyright Policy.