Article

Liturgy, Ritual, and Adult Faith Formation

Connecting to God and Neighbor Through Practice
by Rev. Dr. Scott M. Hughes

Being pelted by golf balls can teach some valuable lessons. My first job as a teenager was working at a golf driving range. One of my favorite parts of the job was driving the caged tractor that had an attachment on the front used to scoop up the golf balls. While some of the golfers were singularly focused on improving their skills, others had a little more fun with their time at the driving range and enjoyed aiming for the caged tractor. Riding in the metal cage gave me the boldness to egg on those who attempted to hit the moving target. Like most first jobs, this one provided lots of life experiences and lessons.  Getting free golf lessons and the chance to hit all the golf balls I could (when not on-the-clock) was front-row experience to the powerful teacher of habits and practice.

We’ve all heard the axiom -- habits are hard to break. Current neurological research is revealing just how true this is. Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit and Daniel Siegel’s The Mindful Brain tell us that our brains are wired to be learning and efficiency-driven. Once a practice has been learned, our brain figures out how to efficiently store that knowledge or activity, so that it spends energy on other tasks. Quick, what’s 2 x 2? My guess is that the answer came to your mind without thinking about the multiplication chart. Similarly, once we learn to drive a car, we don’t have to relearn it every time we drive. Our brain has “hardwired” this activity, so we are free to switch between Tim McGraw and Beethoven on the drive home (without texting, of course).

The power of habits, practice, and ritual are instilled much deeper than we realize. This is true for religious habits and any and all other habits. (Just ask a golfer to adjust his/her swing!) We experience the power of unconsciously reinforced habit when we routinely reach for the Cheez-Its® instead of an apple. We experience the power of habit when we choose to check our Facebook status “one more time” instead of read the Bible. Because of our daily practices and due to our culture subtly engraining in us the values of productivity and efficiency, we hardly recognize when the power of practice of ritual is in effect.

Therefore, there is power in the practice of rituals even when they might be experienced as dry or rote. Even when saying the Lord’s Prayer or the Communion liturgy feels like a one-way activity from us toward God, the continual practice of prayers and liturgy deeply forms our attitudes, thoughts, and behaviors. Such is the case, too, when we pray with our families before a meal or resist the temptation to miss church. When my soon-to-be-teenaged son expressed his anxiety about our recent move, spending time in prayer with him came easily and served as a comfort, due at least in part because it was a familiar experience, reminding us of God’s continual presence.

We get formed by a society that prizes productivity and functionality, which is at odds with the gospel that prizes relationship. God is relational in nature - three in one. God has called us into the community of the body of Christ. Holiness is loving God and neighbor. The power of spiritual practices is that they make room for God to shape us into God’s image. That’s why we have to be intentional about making space for Sabbath, meditation, reading Scripture and prayer, even when these practices might seem “unproductive” or even selfish since there are always other activities that could be done for “others.” It is important as leaders that we model the disciplines of prayer, church attendance, and Scripture reading. Even when the results are not obvious, continuing such habits shapes our families and us in powerful ways.