Over the last several years, I’ve been challenged to consider more seriously how humans are creatures of habit. I’ve had my eyes opened to the fact that habits not only flow out of who we are, what we love, etc., but they in turn shape who we are, what we love, etc. — ’round and ’round we go.
Large segments of Christianity today assume that new, innovative, and stimulating are the primary characteristics that motivate faith formation. A local church’s ad proclaims, “Church shouldn’t be boring!” I fell hard for that way of thinking when I became a Christian. I thought my faith formation hinged on whether I “felt” like I was getting closer to God. It was much like an exciting, new romantic relationship. Like Buddy the Elf, “I’m in love, and I don’t care who knows it!”
The reason that this is troubling is that the witness of Christian tradition attests to the simple, mundane nature of faith formation. Certain practices performed over a long period of time shape our faith. Faith formation is less like developing romantic feelings for another person, and it is more like learning to play the piano.
The piano is responsible for some of the most moving music I’ve ever heard. But I know enough to understand that being able to compose — or even simply to play — such music starts with simple, mundane, even boring practice. It requires time, patience, and devotion. I know this from personal experience, as I fight to get my kids to practice every day. So with faith formation. We have to “practice,” and over time, we are formed.
Whatever that might mean, it seems to me that it must at least include daily, structured practice. It won’t happen in one hour on Sunday morning; it won’t happen because we “feel” it into existence. It’s easy to be enticed by flashy, by exciting. But those will only lead us so far before we crash and burn.
I find a lot of insight by also considering the many, many hours I’ve spent on the basketball court. If you’ve ever watched people walk onto the basketball court in a non-structured setting, then here’s what you will see: someone grabs a ball, runs onto the court, and starts launching the ball from the three point line; another runs and jumps, attempting to grab the rim. It’s pure chaos, with everyone trying exciting things out. But if you ever walk onto the court when a good coach is leading a practice, you will see none of that. Rather, you might see players lined up, practicing free throws; players passing the ball back and forth; players running drills. Talk to anyone who’s been on a basketball team, and they will tell you that practice is, well, boring. Everyone would rather play an actual game of basketball. But the good coach knows that hours must be spent doing the boring and mundane if the players are to be prepared to succeed during a real game. I spent hours standing at the free-throw line in high school, shooting the same shot over, and over, and over. It’s boring, but in the process, I learned how to shoot free throws with my eyes closed.
In light of all of this, I’ve greatly restructured my own practices of faith formation. I, like many people, have struggled forever with upholding a daily routine. I come up with many excuses, the most deceptive one being, “Well, I’m working on a sermon, so I don’t really need anything else.” I’ve committed over the last two years to a daily, boring, mundane plan. It’s pretty simple. But I’ve found that it has become a part of my routine. I look forward to it. But even when I don’t, it’s just a habit now, so that I do it anyway. It’s like brushing my teeth.
You may say, “This sounds an awful lot like dead ritual — just going through the motions.” I would respond by paraphrasing a pastor I once heard: there’s no such thing as “dead ritual.” Ritual is either good ritual or bad ritual; it’s people who are dead or alive. Further, ritual is unavoidable. We have routines and rituals; the question is, Which ones? His point: ritual is about what we put into it. Ritual is essential for faith formation, just like its essential for developing anything — piano ability, free-throw shooting.