Rituals I grew up during the 1960’s and 70’s in the South and Midwest, where conservative evangelical views reigned supreme. During those days there was a marked anti-Roman Catholic attitude among many conservative evangelical preachers and leaders. The sentiment was predominant among church members of the day as well. The negativity expressed itself in several ways. For example, although I was only eight years old at the time, I remember vehement discussions at the barbershop, the grocery store, and at the church-house during the election season of 1960 when Roman Catholic, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was elected President of the United States. The largely fear-based reactions made me, as a little kid, feel like we were all doomed to soon be speaking in Latin and singing Gregorian chant for our before-mealtime blessings. Another means of anti-Catholic reaction was resistance by many evangelical churches to anything that smacked of ritualistic symbolism. Candle lighting , use of responsive readings, usage of decorative symbols, and the like were discarded by many evangelicals as inherently meaningless. In many churches liturgical form was supplanted by formats that resembled revivalist crusades. The pragmatic move was seen by many leaders as a way to fend off any hint of ritualism, while at once focusing their churches’ attention on evangelistic zeal, or so they hoped.  In the meantime what was also lost was a more robust reading of scripture in public worship, and other worship acts with strong biblical affinity.

Ritualism and ritual are two different things. Ritualism could be described as ritual that has turned in upon itself, robbing ritual of its intended meaning. Social Scientist, Robert K. Merton, in his theory of deviance says, ritualism is a “form of quasi-deviance in which people obey norms outwardly by ‘going through the motions,’ but they lack inner commitment to their roles and the underlying values of the social system.” He goes on to say that widespread ritualism undermines morale and commitment as others observe the lack of commitment.  Wow!  I will let you make your own applications in the case of this frightful description.  Regardless of whether the expression is overt formalism, Pentecostalism, traditional revivalism, or contemporary-styled worship, ritualism tends to raise its ugly head as faith fades, and genuine spirituality is lost. I have written previously on Michael Walters’ proposal that says, “ritualism is worship divorced from life.” (read here) By contrast, Webster’s dictionary says ritual is a sequence of activities involving gestures, words, and objects, performed according to set sequence. Greeting someone with a handshake is a ritual. Saying, “thank you” and “you’re welcome” is ritual. Ritual comes from rite. Weddings and funerals are rites, and we who are Christian believe these rites are best administered by the church with a clear Christ-centered message at their heart. Ritual is important to worship. Many symbolic acts of worship are ritual. We bow our heads or kneel when we pray. We may raise our hands in praise and/or as testimony to our desire to surrender to the Lordship of Christ. We may call for people to walk an aisle as a means of spiritual response or decision. We baptize new believers. We partake of the Lord’s Supper either in unison acts, or through actions of coming to the Table. These gestures, words, and objects performed according to sequence are rituals, but certainly they are intended to be filled with meaning. Those with sacramentalist understanding of some of these acts may even say they are means of bestowing God’s grace. Those with a different view would say the acts and elements are more symbolic.  Symbolic ritual does not guarantee the essence of the activity, but rather serves its enactment. Kneeling or bowing one’s head does not guarantee we are communing with God in prayer, but these ritual actions foster the spirit of prayer and their practice offers worshipers a means of indicating they are engaged in prayer. Likewise, raising hands in itself never assures praise or surrender. Even going to church for Sunday worship in the first place is ritual, but not one that assures we are living as disciples, or worshipers of Jesus. We could perhaps all participate in writing personal testimony as to ways meaningful ritual can drift into meaninglessness that becomes ritualism. Pride certainly finds a welcome home in ritualism as worshipers gone cold may continue attempts to appear spiritually warm and pious.

Worship ritual clearly must be rooted in Jesus Christ. While none of us can claim absolute doctrinal purity, we can seek to faithfully root our worship in Christ. Biblical research, as well as study of the Church’s history reveals the ongoing need for reformation in the church. Study of the ancient church reveals the foundational practice of Word and Table.  Years of add-ons and complicated schemes of indulgences and other additions led to the Reformation.

Just as with other ritual activities, singing is an act that can either drip with full-hearted meaning and significance, or can drift into ritualism.  We may blame the songs, or style of the music as being meaningless.  Often, what has become meaningless is the singing itself.  Half-hearted, rote participation, or complete lack of engagement at all can rend the ritual of singing our worship meaningless.  Singing can even end up serving as a means of dividing the church, rather than opportunity to shape her into the worshiping community of “many members, one body” that scripture teaches. Seems to me the oneness for which Jesus prayed (John 17) is either helped through our serve-one-another worship singing, or thwarted by our age-segmented, or preference-driven divisions.

Lord, help our singing to engage head and heart in the Gospel in a spirit of ministering mutuality such that our worship always points us to Jesus, and shapes us in His image through the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Explore posts in the same categories: Church Music, Congregational Singing, Singing Worship, Spiritual formation through singing, Uncategorized, Worship Leaders, Worship Pastors, Worship Reminders, Worship theology, Worship thoughts, Youth Worship


  1. […] Paul Clark elaborates on the distinction between ritual and ritualism: […]

  2. Lisa Huddleston Says:

    I recently read a passage in which an author stated the importance of ritual and liturgy in giving voice to those passing through spiritual deserts–words for those who are nearly unable to speak, to pray, to worship. Reminded me of how the Holy Spirit speaks for us when we cannot even pray. I am thankful for words that draw me closer to the Word. Thanks, Paul. Thoughtful post.

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