Liturgy, Rituals, and Vacation Bible School

A blessing I’ve received from my years working alongside and learning from the Anglican, Episcopalian, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches is a profound respect for tradition. “Tradition,” the Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky once famously said, “is the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church.” G. K. Chesterton once described it as “giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.”[1] I’ve come to see traditions as the things which we do that has been tested and tried over time through a community and found useful to living, which is the task of those in the present to negotiate with in order to bring meaning and purpose to an audience of their contemporaries.

All of us have traditions. In our churches, our families, our friend groups. To ignore the power of tradition is to ignore a powerful formative tool in the belt of an educator.

A former student of mine and I are meeting every other week to discuss James K. A. Smith’s You Are What You Love. We started meeting a few weeks ago upon hearing the news that he would be exploring what a life of ministry within worship arts would look like through an apprenticeship program that the church we both attend is offering, to give him some books to stew over. Yesterday, during our conversation, we paused at Smith’s definition of liturgy, a word that was unfamiliar to him, to unpack it.

“Liturgy,” according to Smith, “is a shorthand term for those rituals that are loaded with an ultimate Story about who we are and what we’re for.”[2] Smith goes on to argue that there are many forms of liturgy in which we unknowingly or unintentionally participate which has just as much of an impact – arguably more so – than the intentional practices we invest into in an attempt to pursue discipleship.[3] In other words, one of the main vehicles that tradition is passed down to us is through the liturgy into which we wittingly and unwittingly are immersed.

Earlier in the week, I found myself revisiting Tish Harrison Warren’s Liturgy of the Ordinary and Rachel Held Evans’ Searching for Sunday, reflecting on Smith’s notion of liturgy, thinking about how practices like making the bed, brushing one’s teeth, or fighting with one’s partner can be rituals that serve as connection points to a larger Story in which Christ followers are participating.[4] Evans writes that “Christianity isn’t meant to simply be believed; it’s meant to be lived, shared, eaten, spoken, and enacted in the presence of other people. They reminded me that, try as I may, I can’t be a Christian on my own. I need a community. I need the church.”[5]

Funnily enough, when I mentioned the fact that even the nondenominational church that I’m situated at has a liturgy of its own, showing what story it wants to connect people to in its practices, the student was quick to pick up on them. At first, he identified the traditional ordinances and symbols the church had – communion and baptism – before moving onto Christmas and Easter. And then he paused before inquiring, “What about Blitz?”

Blitz, for those who aren’t in the know, is the absolutely massive Vacation Bible School extravaganza that the children’s ministry puts on every year which attracts around hundreds of kids year after year during the summer. As he reflected, the student concluded that for the kids, the general message communicated was the idea that “Life with Jesus is Life, Fully Lived.”

“But,” I inquired, “what would the message be for those who act as volunteers?”

The student stared off in the distance for a moment, before his eyes flicked back in my direction. “Are you saying that the same rituals have different meanings for people depending on how they participate in it?”

I nodded. “I’d like to challenge and invite you to consider how the experiences of worship that you’re crafting for people to engage in might communicate differently to everyone involved.”

After I voiced the invitation, the challenge also sits before me, causing me to wonder I can be more intentional about how each person involved in the shared rituals and liturgies of my day to day are affected.

I wonder how they currently are.

Frederick Buechner once observed a similar phenomenon, stating that “it is the sermons we preach to ourselves around the preacher’s sermons that are the ones that we hear most powerfully.”[6] It is the stories we tell ourselves around the central text before us, whether a sermon or a ritual like Blitz, that stick with us, not just what the facilitator intended. I think this is in part because we are always negotiating with meaning and relevance of things to our own lives, bringing whatever we encounter and grapple with into conversation with where we are.

Of course, a person in a healthy spot might hear something completely different from a person that’s burnt out and cynical. Which, I believe, is why we need liturgy in community, so that we can proclaim the gospel to one another. It is our job to speak the truth in ways that remind us of the larger Story together – including moments we might not realize we need to. Moments like, I think, the tradition of vacation bible school or breaking bread.

[1] G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy.

[2] James K. A. Smith, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2016), 46.

[3] Smith, 41.

[4] Tish Harrison Warren, Liturgy of the Ordinary.  

[5] Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday.

[6] Frederick Buechner, Telling Secrets.


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