‘media’ and liturgical formation

James K. A. Smith has written and spoken much about liturgical formation; that is, how humans are formed, shaped and influenced by ‘liturgical’ actions, rites or practices.  For Smith, all of life can be seen with a ‘liturgical’ lens, as the human species (‘homo-liturgicus’) engages in various patterns of repeated activity.

One colourful example is that of a shopping mall, where seemingly mundane and ‘normal’ actions such as parking, entering, wandering, browsing, purchasing, exiting (and whatever else one does as part of a standard ‘trip to the mall’) are seen as liturgical rituals, that form us.  In the case of the mall, the repeated practices just mentioned form us into the mold of a consumer.  Through repeated participation in shopping at the mall, we learn and practice consumerism.

I had a related thought the other day, and I wanted to tease it out here. Essentially, it’s taking the liturgical and formational insights of Smith and reading them through the lens of the language of ‘media’…

It’s been a couple years since I’ve worked as a minister, and I’ve been increasingly exposed to ‘tradies’.  Many of these are people who don’t go to church (and aren’t likely to want to soon…).  These interesting people use different language, have different political views, listen to different radio stations, watch different TV/movies/videos, and have different approaches to social media than I’m used to.  Many of them (not all) haven’t shared my high standards for coffee shops.

Ironically, I’ve also been attending a different church, with a different form of worship in a different theological tradition.  I’ve also been listening more to Christian radio (including songs, advertisements, and teaching programmes). In short, I breathe the air of different ‘media’ than I used to.  Life feels different…  I feel more in touch with the tension between the Gospel and the world, and more pulled this way and that way by different ‘media’ that I am exposed to…

I find it interesting how (with exceptions, of course) people with ‘x’ political views might tend to gravitate towards this or that kind of radio, TV programmes, eating venues, Facebook groups, hobbies, brands of beer and chips, etc.  Whilst I don’t think it would be possible (or interesting) to make too direct a link between, for example, your particular political orientation and the particular band you listen to, I have been thinking about the extent to which the various (and many) kinds of ‘media’ we imbibe has a formative effect on us.

Just as life can be viewed through the lens of ‘liturgical’ rites and practices that we engage in, so also it can be viewed through the lens of ‘media’ that we consume.

As one who has done some study into gathered worship, I find the language of ‘media’ to be very fruitful.

I am suggesting here that all worship is shaped by the media that the worshippers (including worship planners and worship leaders) consume.

Think of various kinds of worship gatherings.  Not just what happens in the service, but what the space looks like, how it feels, what it communicates.  And yes, of course, what happens in the service.  How it begins, what the climactic moment is (if it has one),  what seems to be important, etc.

Arguably, ‘good worship’ should be rooted in the ‘media’ of the gospel, and relevant to the ‘media’ of culture.  The result being that worshippers are formed more into the image of Christ.  What do I mean here?

One the one hand, worship should be dripping with gospel ‘media’, including (but not limited to):

  • Symbols of the Story
    • (most churches at least have a cross, right?)
  • Language of the Scripture
    • (the Bible is read – or at least referred to!? – at least a few times, right?)

On the other hand, worship should be expressed in the ‘media’ of culture, examples include:

  • sounds
    • (language and wording that ‘these people’ can understand)
  • sights
    • (imagery and art that is intelligible and moving for ‘these people’)

In terms of a service of worship being ‘rooted in gospel media’, it is a matter first of whether or not it is, and then to what extent it is.  It is possible to conduct a ‘worship service’ in which very little of the Gospel is presented.  Perhaps the service consists of images and language that is entirely cultural and devoid of any symbols or words of Scripture.  Indeed, the very notion raises the question of just what ‘gospel’ is believed by this community?  If they do and say ‘this’ when they gather in ‘this’ kind of space, they must believe the gospel to be ‘this’.

In terms of a service of worship being ‘expressed in cultural media’, it is not a matter of ‘if’ it is or not, but rather how deep this expression is, and whether this cultural expression is with or against the ‘grain’ of the Gospel.  A few examples may be helpful, and I’m trying not to obviously signal this or that style of worship.

On the one hand, sometimes the ‘media of culture’ expressed in a service can go against the grain of the Gospel.  This happens when a cultural medium is used that is rooted in a cultural pattern that the Gospel subverts or judges.

  • worship shaped by the ‘media’ of consumerism may unintentionally (or deliberately!?) use language or symbols that can present the Gospel as offering a product to be enjoyed.
  • worship shaped by the ‘media’ of moralism may commit the opposite error of using language or symbols that present the Gospel as being concerned primarily with good behaviour.
  • worship shaped by the ‘media’ of modernism may use language or symbols that witness to the underlying modernist worldview that newer is always an improvement on the old.
  • worship shaped by the ‘media’ of traditionalism may commit the opposite error of using language and symbols that are always suspicious of new expressions.
  • worship shaped by the ‘media’ of individualism may use language or symbols that focus entirely on the faith, experience and interests of the individual.
  • worship shaped by the ‘media’ of rationalism may use language or symbols that frames the gospel as mainly a matter of having correct doctrine.

The goal at work here, particularly for planners and leaders of worship is three fold:

  1. Be very familiar with the ‘gospel media’: the Scriptural story, biblical imagery…
  2. Be in touch with cultural media: the sights and sounds of a particular place and time…
  3. Having done that, be patient in discerning which cultural ‘media’ will point to the Gospel, and which will distract from it.

A controlling image here may be stained glass.  The light of the gospel can (and must!) shine through many different coloured panes of culture.  On the one hand, if there is no gospel media in the service, there is no light! On the other, if the panes of cultural media are contrary to the gospel, the light won’t shine through!

Coming back, finally, to the theme of Christian formation, the idea here is that worship is most effective at forming disciples into the image of Christ when the service is both rooted in the trans-cultural, trans-temporal and Christ-shaped Scriptural media, and reflected in the language and symbols belonging to ‘these people’.