Skip to Main Content

Review - In Defense of Christian Ritual

In Defense of Christian Ritual: The Case for a Biblical Pattern of Worship by David Andersen. Irvine, California: 1517 Publishing, 2020. Pp. 207. $26.95 hard.

In his book In Defense of Christian Ritual: The Case for a Biblical Pattern of Worship, David Andersen made two significant arguments. First, he argued that worship practices deeply and stubbornly form the beliefs and culture of the church — both institutionally and individually. As a specialist in Christian apologetics, Andersen made this argument with the same methods he used to defend the historical resurrection of Jesus, namely, the collective insights of anthropology, psychology, neurology, epistemology and the social sciences. In this endeavor Andersen was convincing and relevant; worship practices are not only made by the church, but by virtue of their repetition, there is a way in which they themselves give shape to the church. Christian worship rituals, therefore, should be carefully chosen to reflect the content and imaginarium of biblical and apostolic teaching. He added something of value to the well-trod conversational path regarding the importance and process of ritual formation through his unique research interests— even if he would have benefitted from a richer engagement with recent scholarship on ritual formation and the church.

It was surprising, for example, that Andersen did not interact with James K. A. Smith’s landmark work on the formative power of liturgies, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (2009). Other relevant studies from which Andersen would have benefitted include Os Guiness’ Dining With the Devil (1993), Marva Dawn’s Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down: A Theology of Worship for This Urgent Time (1995), Glenn Packiam’s “Seeing Contemporary Worship as Ritual: The Contributions of Roy Rappaport and Martin D. Stringer to Worship Studies” (2015), Tish Harrison Warren’s Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life (2016), Zac Hick’s The Worship Pastor (2016) and W. David O. Taylor’s Glimpses of the New Creation: Worship and the Formative Power of the Arts (2019). Taylor’s work was published very close to Andersen’s own so one can certainly understand its exclusion. Nevertheless, Andersen’s sources for describing the way the church thinks about worship as ritual were out-of-date; he relied too heavily on Kleinig’s 1988 essay “Witting and Unwitting Ritualists,” even mimicking Kleinig’s opening line to begin his own chapter on ritual.

Andersen's second argument was that, given his research on the formative power of ritual, the church’s historic liturgy is informed by the Bible and therefore provides the ideal constraining framework for Christian worship practices and creativity. This argument is problematized, however, as Andersen left several key terms undefined and blurred the lines between contending for a Word/Table approach and haranguing modern worship methods like bands, screens, and stage-props. It was essential to his argument for Andersen to clarify what he meant by “the liturgy,” “the church’s historic liturgy,” “ancient Christian ritual” and “American evangelicalism” — but these terms were never clearly defined. It is also unclear if Andersen was writing to convince American Evangelicals of their folly, to rebuke fellow Lutherans for enacting worship rituals which he believed to be unhelpful, or to arm those who want to hold to a traditional liturgy and disparage the use of modern tools in worship.

There are some interesting parallels between In Defense of Christian Ritual and Thomas Howard’s famed spiritual memoir Evangelical is Not Enough: Worship of God in Liturgy and Sacrament, in which Howard described his conversion to Roman Catholicism from Evangelicalism. While Andersen has not made such a journey to Rome, his rebuttal lacks a distinctive Lutheran character in regard to worship forms. Firmly rooted in the Lutheran tradition, Hermann Sasse wrote that Lutherans:

know nothing of liturgy that is prescribed in God’s Word… [Here is a section on the value of preserving liturgical heritage]... But these ceremonies do not belong to the essence of the church or to the true unity of the church...It is high time that the liturgical movement in the Lutheran church wakes up from its romantic dreams and subordinate itself to the norms to which the whole life of the church must be subject. The norma normans of holy Scripture and the norma normata of the church’s confession...If this serious reflection does not take place, then the liturgical movement will become what it has already in many of its adherents: the end of Lutheranism and the road to Rome.1

Lutheranism cannot properly appeal to an historic liturgy as such, which, while Andersen claimed to appreciate in his foreword, he does not satisfactorily integrate this sentiment into the arguments of his book.

Furthermore, it is unfortunate the Andersen overlaid the very complex landscape of rituals enacted in Christian churches today with his own oversimplified conception; for Andersen, there are those who, on the one hand, understand the power of ritual and therefore enact the “church’s historic liturgy” and, on the other, those who, believing there is no prescription for worship in the Bible, make trivial, non-theological, anti-ritualistic, entertainment-driven choices for worship that lack spiritual transcendence and reverence. In this way Andersen took several misconceptions of the modern worship movement and, hobbling them together, inadvertently created a Frankensteinesque straw man. It also would have benefitted Andersen to acknowledge the ways in which the formative dangers of entertainment-driven and anti-ritualistic choices have been addressed within the Contemporary Praise & Worship movement itself—in many cases without returning to an historic liturgy. As the old adage abusus non tollit usum reminds us, the misuse of a thing does not negate its proper use. Furthermore, it would have been beneficial for Andersen to have acknowledged the ways in which an entertainment, consumerist mindset can infiltrate even traditional worship styles.

In this regard, Andersen did not appreciate the complexity of American Christian worship practices, Lutheran and otherwise, on their own terms. One can sympathize with Andersen for his mischaracterization of modern worship, however, for, at the time his book was published, knowledge of these insights may have required a diligent familiarity with the field of liturgics and ritual studies—while Andersen himself is a professed apologist. His heavy reliance on Mary Douglas’ outdated work Purity and Danger (1979), for example, significantly handicapped his analysis and understanding of modern American worship practices.

More recently, Lester Ruth and Swee Hong Lim have distinguished themselves as two leading experts in understanding the rituals of the movement they call Contemporary Praise & Worship, and, while they weren’t the first, they have powerfully demonstrated that the rituals associated with the Contemporary Praise & Worship movement consistently defy Andersen’s conceptualization. In contrast, Ruth and Lim argued that adherents of Contemporary Praise & Worship often profess that the Bible does in fact prescribe worship forms, that rituals are biblically derived, inherently theological, and, especially in the case of the dominant “Gift” tradition identified by Ruth and Lim, that they are rooted in the pursuit of spiritual transcendence. These insights can be observed in their two recent works: Lovin' on Jesus: A Concise History of Contemporary Worship (2017) and A History of Contemporary Praise & Worship: Understanding the Ideas That Reshaped the Protestant Church (2021). Other liturgical scholars have made similar observations, as in Towards a Sacramental Understanding of Charismatic Sung Worship: The Mediation of God's Presence Through Corporate Singing (2008) by Nick Drake, Exploring Evangelical Sacramentality: Modern Worship Music and the Possibility of Divine-Human Encounter (2019) by Emily Snider Andrews and Spirit and Sacrament: An Invitation to Eucharismatic Worship (2019) by Andrew Wilson.

While In Defense of Christian Ritual presents many interesting research findings in the fields of anthropology, psychology, neurology, epistemology and the social sciences, which in turn make meaningful contributions to the church’s understanding of the power of ritual formation, Andersen’s apologetic for the primacy of historic Christian ritual does not address the dominant movements in contemporary worship today. To his credit, however, while Andersen overextends the anti-ritualism of the modern church too far, he helpfully challenges its preference for the spontaneous over the scripted. His important call for the church to enact rituals that put the church in touch with its archetypal story of redemption through law and gospel is regrettably tainted by his thesis regarding the priority of historic liturgy. Andersen's reminder that reaching the lost at any cost comes at a great cost, namely, the church’s inability to ritually initiate disciples into the Christian faith, is problematized by a lack of understanding of how the church has already addressed this error internally. It would have been more helpful if he had, using his lens of ritual evaluation, provided a framework by which specific liturgies could be evaluated, as Mike Cosper has done in Rhythms of Grace: How the Church's Worship Tells the Story of the Gospel (2013).

Furthermore, if Andersen had simply argued for the biblical primacy of the Word/Table ordo, or understood and engaged Pentecostalism’s influence on contemporary worship with its claim regarding the sacramentality of music through its interpretation of Psalm 22:3 ala Reg Layzell, or demonstrated how those who organize liturgies around strict missional pragmatism and over-prioritize and normalize 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, Andersen’s work would be more relevant to the modern conversation. Instead, he unintentionally forayed into questions of the meaning of ritual for American Evangelicalism without fully surveying the current landscape. He presented an interesting way of understanding the power of ritual but needed to apply it in significantly different ways.

Andersen’s Lutheran affiliation is somewhat veiled in the text, but his Lutheran context is made clear through his sources, biography, and publisher, and it is therefore probable that when he wrote about the historic service he had the 1888 Common Service and its descendants in mind. As a Lutheran, however, Andersen does not speak winsomely to Lutherans for he does not invoke Lutheranism’s long-standing conversation regarding a hermeneutic for liturgical adaptation, nor does he refer to the Lutheran Confessional documents, nor does he work with the matter of adiaphora in worship. On this question it is worth reading James Waddell’s The Struggle to Reclaim the Liturgy in the Lutheran Church: Adiaphora in Historical, Theological and Practical Perspective (2005). It is hard to know who to recommend In Defense of Christian Ritual to, for it does not speak directly to Lutherans regarding issues of worship; it does not speak to the current situation in the Modern American Church, and, in my mind, it is not needed to further embolden Lutherans who erroneously believe that, beyond Word and Sacrament, the Church’s has a particular historic liturgy which is a sort of sacred deposit. While Andersen attempted to assuage the reader that he does not believe age itself is an argument for the use of particular rituals, he nevertheless repeatedly argued for the superiority of specific historic rituals. Perhaps his book is best recommended to Anglicans, for many of whom the Thirty-Nine Articles have become obsolete and the use of a historic liturgy, the Book of Common Prayer, remains the test of ecclesiastical unity.

-Steve Zank, Lent, 2023

1 Hermann Sasse, “The Lutheran Understanding of Consecration,” in We Confess Anthology, Translated by Norman Nagel (St. Louis: Concordia, 1952), 117-118.

Back to top