When Chris Haw, now a Roman Catholic, looks back on his days as a worship leader at one branch of a famous mega-church, he learns that there is ritual implicit in pious non-ritualism. More important, done well liturgy works in a way that does not need to be forced.
I do not wish to merely say that, when evangelicals do away with ritual and liturgy they will eventually reintroduce it. I would like to suggest, in a more radical reading of evangelical worship, that it is a misreading to say, as Ziliak does, that “ritual does not seem to have a presence at Willow Creek.” I can say—as one who has been in the back rooms, read the down-to-the-minute service protocol, obeyed the cue calls through the in-ear monitors, and watched the gestures and faces of those around me on stage—that ritual is intensely present there. But it has, in fact, been veiled by a certain theology of anti-ritualistic sincerity. I certainly don’t think Willow Creek is from the pit of hell (I have told my friend if I’m back in Chicago, I’ll be happy to step on stage again); but there is also something in this ostensibly ritual-less worship style that creeps in through the back door of one’s emotions, as it were, and eats away at deep, reflective, contemplation. I’ll explain:I start by noting what Ziliak observed at length: Willow Creek’s use of live-feed images of worship leaders on enormous screens. When I attended a Willow-branded congregation in Denver this Christmas, I must state that I had to look down much of time; I was being shown close-ups of expression-loaded faced, eyes squinted and hands raised in pious communication with the deity. Seeing myself from years ago in the faces of these people, I recalled how such expressions, while in part sincere, are also part of a feedback loop of imitation. “Heart-felt expression” is the ritual here; and others are supposed to catch on to it, even if it is not “required” in the obligatory Catholic, liturgical sense. We are, as Rene Girard puts it, mimetic creatures, and we imitate the expressions and desires of those around us. I recall as a teenager, even before I joined the worship team, this magnetic pull to join the “spontaneous” worship—to stand with the wave of people standing up.
Seeing myself mirrored in those jumbotrons, of Michael-Bolton-like, enthusiastic singing, I felt like I was being shown, for lack of better words, spiritual pornography—too much and too close. But I did not want, in such harsh wording, to judge or separate myself from such apparent “sincerity”; and yet I averted my gaze to the floor because it felt like overexposure. A quote from the odd, lively philosopher Slovoj Zizek came to mind:
What if one kneels down and prays not so much to regain one’s own belief but, on the contrary, to get rid of it, to gain a minimal distance from its overproximity, a breathing space? To believe “directly”—without the externalization of a ritual—is a heavy, oppressive, traumatic burden, which, through a ritual, one has a chance of transferring onto an Other (God is In Pain, p. 190).
I can speak from personal experience that I never quite saw how my “sincere, from-the-heart worship” could be a psychological burden until, after a decade of leave, I stepped back into a Catholic liturgy. Both my wife and I were startled at what we experienced there: the pre-made form of liturgy, its obligation, was paradoxically liberating. We were no longer expected to conjure ad hoc sincere worship onto our faces. We could certainly allow the words and gestures to make their way into “internal engagement,” but by accepting the yoke and regiment of ritual we were somehow released of a burden of “over-proximity.”