(Baker Academic, 2009)

How do theology and worship relate? Most Christians would likely answer that theology inspires and informs worship. Implicit in this response is an assumption about the fundamental character of humanity. To say “theology inspires worship” is to say that a human being must understand something before they can devote themselves to it. In Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, James K.A. Smith (associate professor of philosophy at Calvin College) challenges this assumption regarding humanity and provides a suggestion of how this new understanding of humanity shapes and informs the Christian life. Smith’s book suggests a picture of humanity where worship inspires theology, creating a different way of speaking about Christian worship and spiritual formation that is compelling and merits serious consideration.

Smith begins his book with the claim that “Behind every pedagogy is a philosophical anthropology.” For this reason, he sees it as important to define what kind of “thing” a human is. He posits that we should not imagine humans as primarily “thinking” things, but as “loving” or “intentional” beings motivated to actions not by ideas, but a vision of “the good life” they seek to achieve, both consciously and unconsciously. He holds that we should “picture human persons not as containers filled with ideas or beliefs, but rather as dynamic, desiring ‘arrows’ aimed and pointed at something ultimate, that in turn becomes a mirror of the sorts of people they want to be.”

The goal of both Christian education and worship, then, should be to shape this vision of “the good life” into the Kingdom of God, and to orient participants toward this goal. Smith claims that the most effective way to accomplish this formation and orientation is through what he terms “liturgies;” that is, repeated actions of various significance that revolve, consciously or unconsciously, around drawing towards an ultimate goal. Liturgies may be as simple as brushing one’s teeth every morning or as significant as regular attendance of a religious worship service. In Smith’s words, “All habits and practices are ultimately trying to make us into a certain kind of person.” The task of the Christian minister or educator is to create liturgies and inspire habits form peoples’ vision into conformity with the Kingdom of God.

I appreciated Smith’s insights greatly. Most challenging may be his claim that “The people of God called out (ek-klesia) to be the church were worshipping long before they got all of their doctrines in order or articulated the elements of a Christian worldview. In this, Smith claims that doctrine proceeds from worship rather than vice versa. While I disagree at a lower level (it seems to me that worship requires the knowledge of a few basic theological propositions- namely, that God is good and is worthy of worship), I think the broader meaning of his statement is helpful: the task of the minister (be he or she in a church, parachurch ministry, or educational institution) is not foremost to educate in doctrine, but to teach others to love Christ and center their lives around his Kingdom. This is not to say that theology and education are not important, but that come alongside and out of worship.

The central theme of Smith’s advice to ministers and educators may be summarized in the word intentionality. Because humans are first and foremost intentional creatures, ministers should be intentional in their programming arrangements. Every habit is character forming, and it is the job of the minister to be aware of this as they seek to make and grow disciples of Jesus Christ. Desiring the Kingdom encourages Christian leader to realize that “Christianity is not only (or even primarily) a set of cognitive, heady beliefs… What Christians think and believe (and they do think and believe, and that’s a good thing!) grows out of what Christians do.” This book is highly recommended for ministers, educators, and anyone interested in discipleship and spiritual formation.

Jake Raabe is the editor of Words About God. See more of his writing at http://www.jeraabe.wordpress.com and follow him on twitter @J_E_Raabe.