Desiring the Kingdom: Which do you want?

In "Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation", James K. A. Smith explains how what we love, imagine, and desire shapes who we become. He urges congregations to reclaim worship practices that train our hearts through our bodies.

Imagine yourself at “one of the most important religious sites” in a metro area. From a massive parking lot, you and other pilgrims walk toward the sacred building. Its towering glass doors and chromed arches invite you into a welcoming space that orients new seekers…and helps “the regular faithful to ‘enter in’ to the spirit of the space.”

From visits to similar sanctuaries, you recognize celebrative banners, colors, and symbols that mark the rhythmic unfolding of holidays and festivals. The layout resembles a labyrinth lined by “chapels devoted to various saints.” Three-dimensional icons, statues, and moving images embody “the good life” and inspire you to “willingly submit to the disciplines that produce the saints evoked in the icons.”

No matter which chapel you enter, you already know the rituals by heart. An acolyte offers to shepherd you through the experience but graciously lets you explore on your own to find surprise and joy. When the spirit of the place leads you to what you’re looking for, you bring it to the altar, where a priest “presides over the consummating transaction.” You offer your sacrifice and go out, with the priest’s benediction, carrying a tangible object that confirms your participation in the good life embodied in the chapel’s icons.

This mall-as-religious-site description is far more than a metaphor or analogy for James K. A. “Jamie” Smith, who teaches philosophy and congregational ministry at Calvin College. In Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, Smith shows how cultural liturgies—of the mall, university, and state—“aim our love to different ends precisely by training our hearts through our bodies.”

Smith says Christians need to understand how competing liturgies work so that worship can counter-form us to desire God’s kingdom.

Lovers more than thinkers

Smith starts by asking readers to reconsider the essence of what it is to be human.

The 17th century French philosopher Rene Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am.” (Homo sapiens is Latin for “the knowing one”). Several Christian philosophers in the Reformed tradition say this model is too reductionist, because what we think depends on our underlying beliefs.

Smith objects that neither the human-as-thinker nor human-as-believer model goes deep enough in describing what shapes our lives from the bottom up. Both models see humans primarily as “static containers for ideas or beliefs,” as creatures without bodies, without histories, without “any sense of unfolding and development over time.”

In Desiring the Kingdom, Smith explains that the dynamics of love and desire best describe human involvement in the world. “We are essentially and ultimately lovers. To be human is to love, and it is what we love that defines who we are,” he writes. “What distinguishes us (as individuals, but also as people) is notwhether we love but what we love…. Our ultimate love is what we worship.”

Seeing persons as primarily thinkers or believers blinds us to the gut-level power of common cultural practices. But describing persons as “homo liturgicus, desiring, imaginative animals,” as Smith puts it, helps us notice what normally flies under the radar. We begin to sense how competing liturgies capture our imagination, form our habits, shape our identities, and direct our desires.

“If we can start to see cultural practices for what they are, it’s as if we can then say to them, ‘I see what you’re up to,’ ” he writes.

To what end?

Smith’s way of talking about the human-as-lover is like moving from 2-D to 3-D. We humans-as-lovers don’t love in a vacuum. Rather, we intend our love; we aim it at certain targets, ends, or goals. We don’t aim our love at a list of ideas, doctrines, or disembodied values. We intend our love toward a picture of the good life that pulls us in.

“A vision of the good life captures our hearts and imaginations not by providing a set of rules or ideas, but by painting a picture of what it looks like for us to flourish and live well,” Smith writes.

He emphasizes that this good life isn’t “a picture of just what it looks like for me to be ‘saved.’ ” It’s a vision of human flourishing based on assumptions about what the good life—including relationships, just economies, valuable play and work, and human interactions with nature and the built environment—looks like.

Smith isn’t saying that thinking and believing don’t matter. He’s saying that sometimes the ideas and beliefs that we feed our minds are very different from the subterranean, precognitive, pre-reflective desires that hook our imaginations. If what we learn as Christians doesn’t touch what we desire as humans, then it’s possible we may think about the world from a Christian perspective yet “love not the kingdom of God but rather the kingdom of the market,” he writes.

Recognizing deep liturgy—aha and resistance

Smith writes that because we are “desiring animals,” we all live according to a picture of “the kingdom.” But we don’t all desire the same kingdom. He means more here than that Christians themselves have competing stories about what God’s kingdom is. Smith also means that cultural institutions such as the mall, university, and nationality seek our allegiance and love. Each kingdom has sensual, visible, tactile bodily practices that orient our hearts to reflect what matters to us. Each has communal practices (liturgies) that shape what matters to us.

If you doubt that repetition can train the body to “know” what the conscious mind does not, then Smith poses two questions. Which letter is left of F on the keyboard? How do you catch a baseball hopping down the third-base line?

“The liturgical way of looking at our culture is an aha moment for people. Instead of asking, ‘What are the messages in our culture?’ they get a new set of glasses to see what’s at stake in our cultural immersion and participation,” Smith says.

The liturgical lens helps congregations notice ways that their worship might be like going to the mall or to a concert and lecture. Then they can ask whether or how their services train people to be more like individual consumers or spectators than like a community of Christ followers.

Smith finds, however, that asking Christians in the U.S. to recognize “the collapsing of Christian faith and civil religion” often leads to more resistance than aha. This question pushes people to face conflicting kingdom identities and loyalties. Baptized into one new people of God… Pledging allegiance to one nation under God… Defending individual property, ownership, and prosperity because God helps those who help themselves… Coming—thirsty—to buy wine and milk without money and without cost.

Worship as Countercultural Formation

Advent had just begun, and James K. A. “Jamie” Smith was recalling the process of writing Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. The book dives beneath Christian doctrine to examine liturgies or practices that shape us into “certain kinds of people, who develop certain loves, bent to certain ends.”

“Our kids are 11, 13, 15, and 17. It’s amazing how much I was thinking of them as I was writing this book. Whenever they’d ask me to take them to the mall, I’d say, ‘I’m not taking you to the temple of Diana today.’ It started conversations about what’s at stake in these cultural places.

“Despite all the best efforts at formation in Christian schools, catechism, and worship, the liturgies of the market and mall capture their imagination. The stories and images of the good life that show up on the Disney Channel and in the mall seep into my kids in ways that all the Christian information we’re giving them doesn’t.

“My kids are so influenced by advertising because it’s visual and tactile, narratival and imaginative. Not all Christian worship functions as a counter-measure to all that because it doesn’t tend to have those pictures and images and stories that tap into our imagination,” Smith said. He teaches philosophy and congregational ministry at Calvin College.

In his Advent conversation about Desiring the Kingdom, Smith talked about reclaiming historic worship resources. He trusts that Christian liturgy will form his kids to see certain cultural practices for what they are and to become, instead, people who remember to hope.

“High price of relevance”

Smith grew up Pentecostal in Canada and has studied, worshiped, or led lay ministries in Catholic, Assembly of God, Anglican, nondenominational, and Reformed settings. He writes that all Christian worship is liturgical in a formative sense, even in congregations that would never use the word liturgy.

“There’s a high price to pay for relevance. Not that we want to be irrelevant in worship, but what often happens under the banner of relevance is that you adopt some secular liturgy. I don’t think you can just drop new content into a secular form, because there’s something at work in the form. A stadium liturgy is loaded to make us love something else.

“I’ve seen way too many youth groups that are basically entertainment, an infomercial for Jesus. It’s like everything is fabulous and there’s no space for owning up to the brokenness of creation,” he said.

In Desiring the Kingdom and in public lectures Smith advises “getting over our chronological snobbery.” He’s convinced that when congregations neglect two millennia of formative riches in Christian tradition, they risk shutting down channels for the Spirit’s work. He suggests asking, “What is not happening in our worship? What elements of historic Christian worship aren’t present?”

Smith appreciates how baptism gives his children a “wonderful picture of how the church thinks differently about family. The whole church commits to help. That’s so different than a picture of the family as an autonomous unit in charge of itself.”

The apostles Peter and Paul picture Christians as “a peculiar people,” called out by God. During Advent, Smith said, “It’s exactly the strangeness of historic Christian worship that would make us into a peculiar people. As kingdom people, we should be a more peculiar people than we are. Think of Sabbath keeping—letting go, resting. That’s hard to keep up on your own or as a family. But as communities we can encourage fasting from the frenetic habits of economic consumption.”

Confession, assurance, and Eucharist

What we repeatedly do (or not) in worship reinforces how we understand ourselves and the world. Smith said that seeker-sensitive services often omit confession and assurance of pardon because the practice seems strange, even off-putting. Yet he finds that the weekly regimen of being honest about what’s wrong helps to counter the Oprah message that you’re everything you need so you should believe in yourself.

“Confession also helps us as a community not to sweep under the carpet all of our failures. We might come to church to get refueled or congratulate ourselves that God loves us—but confession doesn’t let you get away with that,” he said.

The mall has its own concept of sin, as in You’re fat….You’ve got pimples….You don’t have the coolest phone. But the mall offers no mercy. It leaves you dangling in shame so you’ll buy more to overcome your “sin.” God’s assurance of pardon meets us in our brokenness and speaks relief and good news.

Smith wishes his church celebrated communion weekly instead of monthly. Especially when worshipers go forward to receive the bread and wine, the Eucharist is for Smith a hand-to-hand, face-to-face picture of the gospel.

“If other cultural liturgies are actively forming people’s loves, then Christian worship has to be intentional about being equally affective. The Eucharistic feast is a tiny normative picture of kingdom economics. No one hoards, leaving others with a lack. Bread and wine are freely and equally distributed,” Smith said.

He sees practices of confession, assurance, and communion as “training wheels meant to let us ‘try out’ forgiveness and reconciliation.” When his kids talk about what or who they don’t like at church, Smith reminds them how the Eucharist pictures a love for “my neighbor, brothers, and sisters that’s not conditioned on my liking them.”

“Remember to hope”

Smith has noticed that kids love traditions. “Do it twice, and they think of it as a tradition. It’s new to me, but the liturgical calendar is a great rhythm that resists the Hallmark calendar of the mall. What we as a people are called to be doing in Advent right now is so different than the frenetic consumption that characterizes the holidays,” he said.

Their congregation observes the Christian year. At home the Smiths light Advent candles and count off days on an Advent calendar. They talk about how those physical practices teach them how to wait…and remember how Israel waited…for the coming kingdom. Meanwhile, Saturday morning cartoons urge kids to add to their Christmas lists.

“You don’t have to be super creative. In doing these little things I primarily hope our kids remember to hope. When we’re feasting on Thanksgiving or Christmas, it’s hard not to think of all the hungry people around the world. Our prayers about the coming kingdom are not so that we can escape. We pray because we want poverty, hunger, and illness to end. I think kids get that,” Smith said.

Learn More

Listen online to Jamie Smith’s January 13, 2010 lecture about Desiring the Kingdom for the Calvin College January Series. Read an interview in which Smith corrects the misperception that he is merely reviving anti-intellectual pietism.

Buy and discuss Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation by James K.A. Smith. It’s the first of Smith’s three-volume set on "cultural liturgies." A major chunk of Desiring the Kingdom is a step-by-step liturgical analysis of historic Christian worship. Smith recommends The Worship Sourcebook for congregations that want to add or enrich worship elements.

James K.A. Smith also wrote Introducing Radical Orthodoxy: Mapping a Post-secular Theology and Who's Afraid of Postmodernism?: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church (The Church and Postmodern Culture. He contributes to the blog The church and postmodern culture.

Read a Catapult Magazine dialogue between Calvin College philosophy colleagues Jamie Smith and Kevin Corcoran on dumbing down discernment.

A Peculiar People: the church as culture in post-Christian society by Rodney R. Clapp was a 1997 Christianity Today Book of the Year. Reading it still strikes a nerve among many kinds of people.

To jumpstart a discussion on competing liturgies at work in your life, check out these Advent devotions about peace, including a military chaplain’s cautions about “substituting private virtue for social concern.” Discover why Todd Harper, president of Generous Giving, decided to rethink his habit of talking about depending on God to raise children in faith yet making financial independence a goal.

People have tried out several Latin-based names for the human species, including homo sapiens (the knowing one) and homo faber (the working one or the maker). If the name homo liturgicus intrigues you, then learn how the vision of active participation in liturgy spread from Catholics in Belgium throughout the world.

Ponder Richard Mouw’s Reformed Worship article on patriotism and civic symbols in Christian worship.

Browse related stories on postmodernism, addressing vices and virtues in worship, visual arts in worship, and The Worship Sourcebook.

Start a Discussion

Start conversations about life’s formative liturgies:

  • What if, as Jamie Smith often asks, education and worship are more about formation than information? How might this insight change how you plan, lead, and participate in congregational worship?
  • When teams from Christian schools or colleges play each other in sports, why are they more likely to pledge allegiance to the flag and sing the national anthem than recite the Apostles’ Creed together?
  • Name a worship practice that your congregation does well, one that steers a middle path between relevance for its own sake and lifeless history. How is this practice a picture of Christian community as a truly alternative way of life?
  • Smith has noticed that his own kids are more affected on Good Friday by a Tenebrae service than a fine sermon on the atonement. Which services do you strongly remember…and why? Did these worship experiences change how you understand or live your faith?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you’ve found to discern cultural liturgies that influence your life and worship?

  • If you experimented with simple ways to help worshipers reconnect body and mind during a specific part of worship (e.g. Scripture reading, sermon, offering, communion), which ideas worked best…or not?
  • If your congregation identified a way that you’d unwittingly adopted a cultural liturgy that was malforming your worship, how did you address that challenge?

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