Imagining the Kingdom

Imagining the Kingdom

By James K.A. Smith
198 pages

I just wrapped up James K.A. Smith's Imagining the Kingdom after being impressed by his first book in the series, Desiring the Kingdom. While the sequel gets a bit repetitive (and dry), Smith dives deeper into the foundational ideas from his initial work. If you lead worship or Christian education, this quick review is here to give you useful tips without making you slog through the whole book.

This is the author’s premise: Worship leaders want to change people’s actions, causing them to work out God’s mission and live like Jesus. The way to change a man’s actions is by conditioning his perceptions, or the way he views the world and his place in it. The way to change a man’s perception of the world is by shaping his emotions, or the way he feels motivated to live in this world. The way to change a man’s emotions is by teaching him stories. These stories prime the pump for one’s imagination, or what the world could be like. It is repetitive liturgy that will gradually nudge him to feel different, think different, and finally act different.

Simply put: One can change a person’s actions through new routines. Let’s unpack how Smith arrived at this conclusion, and what he means by “routines.”

Humans are “liturgical animals” (3, 109, 126). Our practices shape who we become. Smith uses a variety of words - pedagogies, rhythms, liturgies, habits, practices, cadences, routines, rituals - all to reinforce this idea that the liturgies of our life shape the person we become.

There are secular liturgies all over the place (183). They cause us to “think like an American,” or want to join the army (16), or become consumeristic, or increase our ego (40). If secular society has established rhythms that cause people to think and act a certain way, worship leaders ought to do the same, forming stronger believers (19).

A key word used over and over in the book is “Habitus,” a Latin word for the inclinations and dispositions we have. We do not consciously decide every action - how to converse with people, how to interact in the workplace, how we drive a car, etc. - rather, we’ve been shaped in a way that propels us to act a certain way (79-80). A person is not primarily driven by choice, but by “a million unconscious involuntary prompts that carry their own vision of what we’re about” (106). We have free will, but our will has been acquired from our family of origin, community, institutions, and society (81-82); inclining us to think and view the world in a particular way (87). “Habitus is acquired,” says Smith (83) by doing the same things over and over and over again without evening thinking (87).

Habitus (our disposition to think and act a certain way) can be changed. The best way to change it is by starting new routines. “Ritual is the way we (learn to) believe with our bodies” (92). The seemingly insignificant routines of our day form us into who we become. Therefore, our mind “can be developed, trained, coaxed forth” (96).

As stated above, we are “liturgical animals,” shaped by the liturgy of our daily life. This means we are primarily doers, not thinkers (113). Our actions form us more than our conscious thought. Therefore, the way to change a man’s actions is not through his brain, but through his imagination (125). We accomplish this by repeating stories and metaphors. “The heart drinks up narrative like it’s mother’s milk,” Smith writes (38). Here’s what he means: There is only one way to convince a young person to join an army, fight someone else’s war, and kill people he doesn’t know; and it’s by embedding his imagination with patriotic ideals (16). There is only one way to convince a person to train for a sport, hours upon hours every day; and it’s by telling them dreams of the big leagues (23).

Worship leaders and pastors are charged with forming believers into Christlikeness (153) and sending them on mission (157). The key to doing this is repetition. Liturgy in worship is not stuff we do; it’s a practice that does something to us (167, 173). Like learning a new sport or instrument, the key to training is repetition (182, 185). Therefore, the rhythm of worship services and the daily/weekly routines we encourage those in our churches to follow can shape them for discipleship and mission. Smith encourages a serious look at our calls to worship (170-171), spiritual rhythms, and engaging the senses (175).

Protestants and Evangelicals (like me) tend to be skeptical of liturgy. We consider routines like this to be legalistic (164), repetitive but not thoughtful (173), worship that is horizontal but not vertical (182), “going through the motions” or “vain repetition” (182). We want novelty in worship services, not old, boring practices from earlier centuries (182). James K.A. Smith challenges modern Christianity to think of liturgy in a fresh light.

I walked away with several questions for myself:

  1. How is the worship I lead employing the body, and not just people’s ears and mind?
  2. How can I become a better storyteller (rather than simply teaching principles)?
  3. How can an Evangelical church learn to have better liturgy without shifting towards Anglicanism or going Orthodox?
  4. What would it look like for a teaching pastor and a worship team to craft worship services together?
  5. How does this proposition of liturgy-shaping-action apply to my family’s rhythms? To small groups? To married life?