Posted on: May 20th, 2011 Questioning our Worship (X): why so much repetition?

This is part 10 (the final installment) of a 10-part series.

A few weeks ago I had a riveting conversation with a man here in Tyler, a prominent academic, about liturgy and worship. “Episcopal liturgy is boring,” he honestly expressed. “It’s not exciting; I never learn anything new in the liturgy.”

And then, just last week, I was honored to be a part of another conversation about church and ministry and worship, this time with a couple of local Starbucks baristas, one in her twenties and the other probably in his 30’s.

They extolled the worship at their church, because (unlike the local megachurch they had once attended but then had left) the worship was not over-programmed. There was far less of a sense of manipulation and infinitesimally planned, staged, and choreographed performance.

“At our new church, the worship is free. If the Spirit leads, then we might keep on worshiping for hours,” she said with a deep sense of satisfaction.

I’m really grateful that, having been in Tyler now for ten months, it seems like I’m at the point that people are willing to have real, authentic conversations with me. These two examples above have been particularly important because they center on the great strength of our Anglican tradition: worship.

In these and other discussions (including in my Christian Formation class), I have used a couple of different analogies to help folks imagine what the purpose and point of the liturgy might be. (For Thomas Aquinas, analogy is perhaps the foundation of his whole theology.)

The first is language learning. How does a small child (one year old, two years old) begin to learn language? Does she learn it from a book? From an owner’s manual? From a Power Point Presentation? No. Instead, the little one is thrust into an already existing community (which, by the way, she did not choose). Then, over time and with lots of repetition, the muscles in her tongue and lips begin the difficult work of forming habits. (Habit is a key word for thinking about what the liturgy is.) In this way, the child learns, gradually, over time, and with fits and starts, how to say, “da da,” an utterance which eventually gives way to the fully formed “daddy.”

What are we doing in the liturgy if not learning a new language, which will then form us into a different way of thinking and living (Rom 12:1-2)?

A second analogy comes from ancient Roman military practice. When the Roman armies would move into a new territory of battle, they would always set up their camps in the exact same way. The bunks and the latrine and the fire place and the kitchen were always in the same place in the camp.

Why did they do this? To be sure, efficiency was one reason. But in addition to that they knew that what the soldiers needed was a measure of stability, familiarity, and even comfort in a disorienting, chaotic, and stressful situation.

Today more than ever we live in a world (even here in Tyler) which is more fragmented, more rootless, more anxious than ever. One more entertaining and distracting venue is about the last thing we need. As Neil Postman wrote well over a decade ago, we are “entertaining ourselves to death,” primarily as a way to escape the stressful anxiety of the world we live in.

We don’t need more stimulation; we don’t need more dopamine. We need a space of stability and rootedness where we can rest, where we can be formed into a new set of healthy habits will prepare us to worship God for all eternity.

For more, listen to Fr. Matt’s Christian Formation podcasts, accessible at

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5 Responses to “Questioning our Worship (X): why so much repetition?”

  1. Kelly Jennings Says:
    May 21st, 2011 at 8:41 am

    I was raised in BCP liturgy, and graduated from hs saying my church is boring. Fortunately God brought me back in, later in college, precisely because I missed the liturgy. But, I ask, is that a necessary course a high schooler has to take? Surely not. So if not, how do we help young people to value the liturgy? Do we? Do we just leave it all to the Holy Spirit, and if some leave they leave?

  2. paul del signore Says:
    May 28th, 2011 at 10:25 pm

    “We don’t need more stimulation; …We need a space of stability and rootedness where we can rest, where we can be formed into a new set of healthy habits will prepare us to worship God for all eternity.”

    I appreciate that statement. I’ve always felt a sense of importance on liturgy but couldn’t formulate the right words to describe it.

  3. Everett Lees Says:
    May 31st, 2011 at 9:52 am

    My experience with liturgy was the opposite, it was the repetition that I loved. As a young adult what caused me to leave the Episcopal Church, for s brief time, was the lack of community.

    I will say that most of the youth in my confirmation class felt that liturgy is boring. I don’t think we ever teach people how to hear the Eucharistic prayers.

    The Living Church recently profiled a church in Beverly Hills where the celebrant still faces the altar to emphasize we are all praying to the same God (it is not the celebrant performing on behalf of the community).

  4. matt Says:
    June 1st, 2011 at 7:57 am


    Thanks. At Christ Church the Celebrant faces the altar during the Service of the Table as well.

  5. Cheryl Smith Says:
    June 3rd, 2011 at 1:46 pm

    I think worship is one of the places where we are often tempted to make it about us, instead of about God.

    I love how you’re having meaningful conversations with people about worship and what a great analogy about familiarity and liturgy.

    Welcome to The High Calling!

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