‘Test all things, hold fast what is good (1 Thessalonians 5:21).’
Let me first define what I mean by a ritualistic practice. Throughout this article the definition is limited to, ‘repeated actions that are carried out over a period long enough to become a tradition.’ Here’s an example: For as long as I can remember, church services have always ended with a benediction. Thus, the benediction has become a tradition and a ritual.
My Personal Rituals
Each day I routinely perform a number of actions that I believe help me with my physical, spiritual and mental wellbeing.
The first one of the day is getting out of bed at 6.30 a.m., or thereabouts. I put on my dressing gown, plug the mobile phone into its charger and pull back the curtains. When downstairs in the kitchen, I prepare and have breakfast and eat it while listening to the radio. So my routine of more repeated actions continue at certain times throughout the day until it is bedtime. Yes, I recognise how fortunate I am to be retired and to have established my own personal traditions. My relatives and friends have got to know of them. They know what time I have lunch, and what I am likely to be eating! God is truly gracious (Psalm 116:5), for I am blessed, indeed.
As explained above, I believe my personal rituals are beneficial for my wellbeing. If they are beneficial for my wellbeing, then I am better fitted for serving the Lord. However, not all rituals of tradition are beneficial. What about bell ringing? The sound of cacophonous clanging bells breaking the peace of a Sunday morning doesn’t appeal to those who want to sleep on when it’s their day off work. The irritating call to worship will not endear them to putting on their trousers and going to church!
Sadly, the Church has by tradition engaged in rituals that are not helpful in promoting the gospel. Take for example the format of a typical Sunday morning service that you may find at a Baptist church in the UK.
The service will invariably start with a prayer said by one of the elders. He will probably read a passage from the Bible and make an apposite comment for setting the theme of the preaching that will follow later. Immediately afterwards, there will be a hymn or a song. Some churches, will at this point have an elder who will present an illustrated talk aimed at the children. At its conclusion he will say a prayer. Afterwards the offering will be taken, followed by the notices.
All of these things are preliminary to the major event – the presentation of the SERMON, but before it is delivered, there will be the singing of a hymn or a song and the younger children will leave the room for their crèche or Sunday School. The speaker will open his preaching with a prayer. After his sermon there will be a final hymn and a benediction.
Before leaving the building people will engage in conversations, and perhaps on every second and third Sunday of the month tea and coffee will be offered to those who want to continue chatting. Eventually people will drift away and leave for their homes.
The description I’ve given may represent a typical routine that has taken place on Sunday mornings for years and years at your place of worship. You may wonder why the format hasn’t changed. In fact, you may be bored with it, yet you continue and persevere. According to my definition, these practices are both habitual and ritualistic.
Evaluating Church Rituals
These rituals are not bad in themselves, but maybe they should be tested by Scripture (1 Thessalonians 5:21)? – Particularly comparing them with early church practice at the time of the disciples.
As a starters, we accept by tradition that one does not speak or intervene during the preaching of the Word. We do not question or add to what is being preached. But would this have been the case within the early church? Christians worshipped in one another’s homes, not in purpose-built buildings. Their setting was intimate and informal. Furthermore, the Bible does not tell of anyone ‘preaching’ to the ‘converted’ within their homes. Preaching always took place outside (2 Timothy 4:2) of their homes to the unconverted (Acts 4:11-26). It is notable that believers able to teach were encouraged to teach their brothers and sisters (Colossians 3:16; 1 Timothy 3:2; 2 Timothy 2:2).
Today, in a traditional Protestant/Reformed service there is no opportunity for anyone who has been prompted by the Spirit to speak. Unscheduled interjections into the service are not by tradition permitted. Worshippers more than likely would be frowned upon if they, on the spur of the moment, asked for a hymn to be sung. And, as for spontaneously ‘bringing a word’ – that is presenting a Scripture with a short commentary – such an intervention would not be contemplated.
Changes in Practice
I must admit that introducing changes to ritualistic church practices requires wisdom. A case would have to be made to a church as a whole, and for them to agree to new ways of doing things. That would minimise the risk of division and discord within the body. Unity in Christ through the working of the Spirit (Ephesians 4:1-6; 13) should be their prayer. I am convinced the bond (Colossians 3:14) of Christ’s love will hold a faithful church together when it seeks to serve Him to His glory.
It is my belief that habitual, ritualistic practices can stifle a church, and they give little latitude for **organic growth whereby members can play a fuller part in the life of the church and in the making of disciples (Matthew 28:19) and in the planting of new local churches.
We would do well to reconsider all rituals practised by us, and to conform more to the proven traditions (1 Corinthians 11:2; 2 Thessalonians 2:15) of the early church.
Note – I’ll probably be writing an article about the practices of speaking in tongues and prophesying (Colossians 3:16, 17; Acts 2:18) that took place in the early church. I personally believe those gifts were for authenticating the newly established church, and in these times they have lapsed.
*Mind, Body and Soul
**The Organic Church