James K. A. Smith sets out to argue, in his work, Desiring the Kingdom, that liturgy (worship), whether sacred or secular, shape and constitute our identities by forming our most fundamental desire and our most basic attunement to the world (25). He goes on to note that liturgies train our hearts, teach us to be a certain kinds of people, and develop our worldview(s).
Smith argues that the problem with evangelical discipleship and formation is that the focus remains towards a more Enlightenment slant of learning focusing on information—theories, ideas, and beliefs. In other words, current discipling efforts in evangelicalism focus more on worldview and information rather than formation. Basically, Smith believes that believing right, does not necessarily lead to right behavior; but that loving (worshipping) right leads to believing right, which leads to behaving right. Therefore, he argues that man, or what he refers to man as “animals,” (I wish he would have used another word) is a desirous creature before he is a worldview one. In other words, he is a worshipping creature rather than a “thinking” one.
For both missional churches and church planters, discipleship is of great importance given the fact they are passionate about reaching people with the gospel. In, Desiring the Kingdom, Smith provides an articulation of how the church (although he applies it to the university) can accomplish the task of forming disciples. There are at least two contributions of Smith’s argument that can be applied to the realm of discipleship for both the missional church and church planting.
First, Smith teaches believers that to form disciples for the good (eschatological) vision, or kingdom, the church needs to understand the antithetical visions of the kingdom in secular liturgy that exist in culture. In other words, in order to lay the foundation for the good (eschatological) vision of the kingdom, he provides an exegesis of “secular” liturgies (Ch. 3).
Identifying modern-day idolatry, or secular liturgies (how people are innately worshippers), Smith zooms his focus on three cultural institutions: the mall, the stadium, and the university. He summarizes that these secular liturgies are visions of the kingdom—visions of human flourishing that are antithetical to the biblical vision of shalom (121). By providing a cultural exegesis of secular liturgy, Smith demonstrates for believers how to identify the idolatry of the culture at large. If believers can identify the cultural secular liturgies around them, they can then enact and articulate a counter-formation and worship. The stark reality is that this ethos is scarce in the current North American church. In fact, as Smith argues, the North American church finds itself adopting and forming to the cultural secular liturgies.
Second, he outlines his vision for Christian formation, or discipleship—one that is founded upon worship. Smith believes that “Worship is the ordering and reordering of our material being to the end for which it was meant” (143). In short, worship is holistic. This foundation becomes the launching pad of developing an exegesis of Christian “social imaginary” that embeds itself in the practices of Christian worship. In other words, Smith believes that worship leads to practices, and practices leads to habits. In the end, these all lead to a formation of discipleship by which the people of God are “called to be the church to and for the world—not in order to save it or conquer it or even transform it, but to serve it by showing what redeemed human community and culture look like, as modeled by the One whose cultural work led him to the cross” (207). In another place, Smith writes that the goal of Christian worship is, “to form radical disciples of Jesus and citizens of the baptismal city who communally take up the creational task of being God’s image bearers, unfolding the cultural possibilities latent in creation—but doing so as empowered by the Spirit, following the example of Jesus’s cruciform cultural labor” (220).
My major concern with Smith’s thought-provoking work rests in his focus of worship preceding worldview. He writes that Christians worshipped “before they got around to abstract theologizing or formulating a Christian worldview” (139). In other words, it seems that Smith believes that Christians had the right worship before they had the right worldview. In essence, Smith argues that if Christians would desire (or love) right, then they would think (or believe) right, which means they would live or behave right.
I am not convinced this is the case. As a rebuttal of this thought, I think of Jesus being the very Word of God, who took upon flesh, and pointed people back to God. I think of the essence of the good-news, it is a proclamation, an announcement that Jesus is Lord; He is the King who has come. Acts 2 expresses that Peter preached the gospel and people responded. In addition, the church in the later part of chapter 2 is seen “devoting themselves to the apostles teaching.” In short, ideas, beliefs, and theology redirects the worship, or desire, of people. Think of it this way: ideas, theories, theology, or a biblical worldview, invites people back to the garden to do what they were intended to do—worship God.
Nevertheless, Smith provides a sound, thought-provoking argument for believers to have a more formative discipleship rather than an informative one, and one that is built upon a holistic worship of God as they seek to be his worshipping agents embodying and enacting the redeemed and restorative eschatological (future) kingdom.