Liturgy is about routine, and it occurred to me that we as evangelicals despise routine (if you’re a member of a campus ministry, you’re probably an evangelical, even if you don’t know what that word means). We find routine to be fake or contrived, so we either abhor things like liturgies or are at least highly suspicious of them. We tend to make use of them in moderation, probably because we think that if we make use of too much liturgy, we’ll suddenly transform into Pharisees. No doubt this comes from our roots in the Protestant movement, which was often rabidly paranoid of anything that smelled even vaguely of tradition.
In place of routine, we tend to set spontaneity up as an idol so much that now, in order for something to be authentic, it must be made up on the spot, impromptu, and unplanned. There’s a few problems with this. First of all, we tend to forget that spontaneity is often an excuse for laziness and an aversion to planning. Moreover, spontaneous prayer can be just as insincere as planned prayer: I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people try to pray impromptu style only to fall back on the hackneyed Christian lingo-phrases that permeate the lexicon of campus ministries.
Try as we may however, we cannot root out routine from our lives. And we shouldn’t want to, for it permeates our lives and provides structure and order for our days. Spontaneity often keeps us from following through with long-term goals, and often goes hand-in-hand with disorganization and chaos. Moreover, when Jesus speaks about prayer, he seems to advocate a sort of routine. He first starts by telling his disciplines not to “heap up empty phrases like to Gentiles do” (Matthew 6:7). Then he teaches them a specific prayer which is still said today. Several things are interesting about this prayer. It is concise, with all of the words carefully deliberated; Jesus uses no superfluous language here. It is rooted in tradition, having been inspired by age-old Jewish prayers. And finally, it is routine, meant to be repeated daily. In this way, Jesus prayed in a manner that was in harmony with what another famous Jewish thinker had said centuries earlier about praying with care and reverence. “God is in heaven and you are on earth”, says the Preacher in Ecclesiastes, “so let your words be few”.
When we consider it carefully, it seems like the debate is really not between routine and spontaneity, but of good and bad routine. Used improperly and without heart, routine becomes lifeless, but used with the right heart, it can actually be life-giving.