Rituals and Formulas

Today’s post was inspired by KM Wieland’s blog post: Four Ways to Prevent Formulaic Story Structure.  


As I read through Wieland’s article, it reminded me of conversations I've had about worship rituals and some of the codifications and objections that a community of faith will have about their specific rituals. She asks a couple of frequently asked questions, including,

Indeed, won’t story structure inhibit your creativity by forcing you to conform to a preconceived format?
— KM Wieland

A similar question can be asked about ritual, “won’t the same ritual, performed each week, inhibit our ability to connect with God because we are asking God to meet us on (or conform to) our terms?

Rituals, within the context of a community of faith gathering, have a structure, some set pieces within a certain order. Speaking as a United Church of Christ pastor, our rituals go roughly along the lines of:

  • Lighting of candles/Gathering song/Welcoming Guests/Announcements
  • Call to Worship
  • Opening Song
  • Prayer of Invocation or Confession or People's Concerns and Joys
  • Passing of Peace and/or Children's Time
  • Theme Song that relates to Scripture passage or sermon 
  • Reading Scripture passage from the Bible
  • Sermon/Reflection/Meditation
  • Prayers-Pastoral/Concerns and Joys/Silence/Lord's Prayer
  • Collecting the offering of money and Prayer of Dedication
  • Closing Song
  • Being sent out with a blessing or a commission

Other denominations within the Christian tradition will have their own specific rituals. And Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists all have their ways of gathering in community to honor the Higher Being, the Holy One.

Ritual or story structure does not have be rigid, following a particular path. Instead, ritual and story structure provide a framework, that allows connection with the Divine or a flow of creativity.

The trick is that we need to have the formula or ritual so deeply ingrained within us that it lays underneath our writing or our worship. As Wieland writes,

Rather, with the strong basis of that structure underneath you, you have the security to try as many new and interesting things as your imagination can dream up.
— KM Wieland

Take the Lord’s Prayer. It is something that is said during every worship service within many Christian church worship service, as noted above. After a while we say it by rote, by memory. When I taught confirmation to youth, some of the youth complained about the boredom of saying the Lord’s Prayer. And it is! Memorizing and stating something each Sunday, without thinking about it is tedious.

But if we take time to study the words, something happens. I remember reading a commentary about the Lord’s Prayer several years ago, that remains with me to this day. That author wrote that if we had any consciousness at all about what we are praying for, we would not enter the church unless we wore hardhats, ready for a rollercoaster ride. Because we are asking for God’s kingdom/realm/community to come on earth…as it is in heaven.

For Christians who believe that God created all things for good, we have strayed a long ways from our Biblical role as stewards of the earth itself and all the sentient creatures who inhabit this planet.

Whether we are writing or worshiping, we have a process to create great stories or an inspiring community of faith. It’s a process that involves:

  • becoming aware of and desiring involvement or participation in the craft of writing or in a worship ritual
  • learning the foundation of story structure or of faith rituals and why the foundation is used
  • intellectual memorization, repetition, boredom
  • more learning
  • an internalization of the foundation of structure or ritual that, in crafting story, allows us to be truly creative and original and, in our faith life, allows an opening in our hearts for the Holy to find us in the most unexpected of places.