I’ve never really had a moment in my life—39 years—when I wasn’t going to church. My parents got engaged and married in the church. I was born into, raised in, and baptized in church.
My parents, first-generation Christians, were devout church-goers. We went every time the doors were open—and many times when they weren’t. My father, a plumber, volunteered thousands of man-hours helping build church buildings. My mother volunteered, worked as a secretary, and later served as a preschool teacher.
Since age five, I sat in services: Sunday mornings, Sunday evenings, and Wednesday night prayer meetings. I wasn’t allowed to draw. I was required to sit up straight—no fidgeting. And I wasn’t allowed to fall asleep.
Up through my teenage years, I thought of church as a bit boring. Sure, there were some life-changing, soul-stirring messages at summer camp or a special service. But for most of my life, including my years as a pastor, I did pretty much the same thing every week: singing familiar songs, reading Scripture, listening to a sermon.
Ironically, one axiom of my childhood evangelical faith was this: Church is more than the service or a building; it is the called-out people of God, living on mission every day. Church, I was told, will not get you to heaven. Only a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ will do that.
Tantalizing ways to excite people, or timeless rituals that shape our hearts?
I still believe this, more strongly now than ever, but I also believe that in some ways church does—or did—save me. It didn’t save me in the ways you might expect: a spectacular Sunday service, a home run sermon, or a gripping worship set. God’s primary tool to transform my heart was not the conference speaker or the traveling revivalist or the worship concert. Those events were important, but now I realize that, more often, God changed my life using routine worship services in which I sang hymns I didn’t quite understand and heard messages I didn’t quite grasp.
During times of fear and anxiety, I drift back to the words of hope from Martin Luther’s epic hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”:
And though this world, with
Should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed
His truth to triumph through us.
When I feel insecure, I recall the lines of the Methodist hymn:
I stand amazed in the presence
Of Jesus the Nazarene,
And wonder how he could love me,
A sinner, condemned, unclean.
The hymns of the blind poet, Fanny Crosby. The majestic lines from Isaac Watts. The simple melodies of Bill Gaither. These are just a few of the hundreds of hymns that were cemented in my heart from week after week of “boring” church services. As a young child enduring the routines of our Baptist church, I didn’t realize what was happening to me.
In his book, “You Are What You Love,” James K. A. Smith talks about the way our hearts are formed:
“There is no formation without repetition. Virtue formation takes practice, and there is no practice that isn’t repetitive. We willingly embrace repetition as a good in all kinds of other sectors of our life— to hone our golf swing, our piano prowess, and our mathematical abilities, for example. If the sovereign Lord has created us as creatures of habit, why should we think repetition is inimical to our spiritual growth?”
This repetition built in my heart a deep reservoir of theology. And now, as a husband and father, and pastor, whenever I stand and sing these hymns, I can barely contain myself. Some choruses evoke memories: My father serves communion while “Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross” plays faintly in the background. Dad fights back tears as we sing “Jesus Paid It All.”
These rituals train our hearts. We sing to ourselves songs, hymns, and spiritual songs. We hear the gospel preached to us over and over. We lift the cup to our lips and the bread to our tongues remembering, again, our place at the King’s table. Through these practices, God takes our hearts and seals them for his courts above, to paraphrase another hymn writer, Robert Robinson.
Don’t get me wrong. We shouldn’t eschew creativity in the church. We are, after all, “new creation” people. But our creativity should not seek to tell a new story. It should be designed to communicate to our hearts that same, old, wonderful story of salvation.
When I think back on the simple routines that changed my life, I’m encouraged in my own pastoral role. I’m reminded afresh that the work of ministry is not so much about finding new, tantalizing ways to make people excited about Jesus, but about the timeless rituals that shape their hearts.
Daniel Darling is the vice president for communications for the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Previously, he served as a senior pastor in the Chicago suburbs. This column is excerpted from Baptist Press.