The Mysteries of Liturgical Sincerity

Pray Tell is pleased to feature the first article from each issue of Worship, the “Amen Corner,” along with a response to it (forthcoming). This article is from the May, 2018 issue. Gracious thanks to editor Bernadette Gasslein and Worship for reprint permission. Subscribe to Worship here.

by John D. Witvliet

Deep in the archives of this journal are fascinating explorations of liturgical sincerity. In 1944, John Hennig testified: “However bitterly our age may be accused of abandoning the standards of morals and religion, there is one point in which it is irreproachable, especially the younger generation, and that is its boundless longing for and scrupulous attachment to sincerity,” over against those who are “merely external and habitual Christians.” In 1949, Paul Doncoeur, S.J., described the burgeoning liturgical movement as stemming from a “concern for sincerity which the Church above all must support,” contending that “we can put up with a certain formalism, a certain amount of routine in the procedure of parliaments or law courts. But [humanity’s] intercourse with God must be carried out ‘in spirit and in truth.’”[1]

A centerpiece of many liturgical movements over the past thirty centuries, sincerity is both a concept and an experience that are full of mysteries. Among my mostly Protestant students, no theme is more contested, misunderstood, or cherished. For some, it is also at the epicenter of their quiet caution or explicit resistance to Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran and some Presbyterian and Methodist worship, as they instinctively echo what is arguably the most visceral of historic Protestant tropes: “how can such regulated worship be sincere?” They are, after all, students at a college and seminary named after John Calvin, with the Calvin-inspired motto, “I offer you my heart, Lord, promptly and sincerely.”

Sincerity was indeed a central concern of the Protestant Reformers, a concern that intensified in subsequent centuries as Puritans, Pietists, Quakers, and Revivalists doubled-down on attempts to codify or re-ceremonialize liturgy, and promoted their own rituals of sincerity and spontaneity, a story well-told by Edward Muir, John Martin, Lori Branch, and Ramie Targoff among others.[2]

It is a history full of soul-searching exploration and liturgical experimentation. In my own Reformed tradition, the Westminster Directory for Worship split the difference between prescribed Anglican liturgies and free prayer, pairing rubrics and models for extemporaneous prayers, “mixing sincerity and artifice, spontaneity and control.”[3] Dutch Reformed theologian Abraham Kuyper spent decades wrestling with metaphors that would best convey how liturgical forms support sincere prayer: were they like husks around a seed, a riverbank cradling a current, clothes which dress the body, an institution that supports an organism? [4]

The standard historiography of Protestant concern for sincerity reaches far and wide, with writers developing suggestive theses about the Protestant roots of Linus’ sincere admiration for the Great Pumpkin, the emergence of hipster culture, and the New Sincerity movement in literature and film spawned by David Foster Wallace.[5]

Slippery Definitions

Operational definitions of sincerity vary widely across cultures, centuries, philosophical frameworks, and Christians traditions.

Anthropological perspectives are best poised to shatter simplistic definitions. What counts as sincere varies widely among cultures that value direct vs. indirect communication, low vs. high power distance expressions of authority, individualist vs. collectivist identities, tight vs. loose social norms, more constricted vs. more expressive approaches to emotion, those that emphasize interior experience vs. those that do not. Sincerity subtly dawns on the stolid faces of Danish fishing villagers in Babette’s Feast and erupts in expressive cries in Korean Tongsung Kido prayer. Worldwide, some seminaries teach students to intensify emotion in their liturgical leadership, while others teach students to restrict it (e.g., the contrasting tone of Anglo-Catholic and Evangelical Anglican presiders). Whereas some traditions assume that individual spontaneous prayer encourages the purist form of sincerity, others resist this. Indonesian Marapu worshipers once responded to Dutch missionaries by lamenting extemporaneous Protestant prayer as “an excessive willfulness, a hubris that is at once dangerous and ineffective.”[6] Comparative interfaith discussions confront my students with the notion that sincerity is far from a universal preoccupation.[7]

Historical studies further stretch us. My Protestant students are surprised to discover concern for sincerity in patristic monastic texts, in 12th-century monastic renewal movements, and in the nineteenth century Oxford movement.[8] They puzzle over the mutual dependence between the Reformation and a new Renaissance emphasis on the expressive subjectivity of individuals. They find sincerity profoundly modeled in Romano Guardini and Alexander Schmemann.[9] Their assumptions are particularly challenged by Nathanial Marx’s conclusion that ‘For most Latin Mass Catholics, . . . what they find most inimical to the cultivation of sincere, interior devotion is a compulsory informality and exaggerated spontaneity that comes across to them as predictable, banal, and theatrical”[10]—a sentiment diametrically opposed to their prior assumptions.

While most definitions of sincerity refer to concord between interior experience and external action, operational definitions across contexts may also include concern for proactive transparency, the correspondence of a given sentiment with a person’s way of being over time, communal sincerity, and emotional intensity or vulnerability. While in some contexts sincerity is tightly defined, in many its semantic range extends to include almost any liturgical experience of inspiration, repose, ecstasy, tranquility, or “being moved.”

All of this challenges any simplistic one-dimensional ritual-sincerity analytical axis that contrasts Orthodox and Catholic worship on one end of a spectrum with Quakers and Pentecostal worship on the other.[11] Imagine instead three independent axes of analysis: the relative degree of emotional expression, the relative degree of prescribed ceremonial complexity, and the relative degree of emphasis on sincerity. This multi-dimensional view invites students to imagine how sincerity might be received as a gift in contexts strikingly different from their own.[12]

Free Church Protestant Mysteries

After clarifying these complexities, it is a holy and mighty challenge to negotiate the dynamic discussions of sincerity that emerge among students whose spirituality has been formed in the juxtapositional vortex of historic Trinitarian confessions, the cultural forces of consumerism and individualism, the joys and vagaries of the ‘worship industry,’ the perceived authenticity of hipster culture, and the wild and woolly world of Protestant liturgical deregulation. I love them and our feeble attempts to work out our salvation with fear and trembling as we puzzle over questions like these:

  • Why do some people associate sincerity with raising hands or hand clapping, while others associate it with kneeling or pregnant silence?[13]
  • Why do so many churches resist confessing sin or lamenting brokenness “because sincerity on these matters can’t be forced,” while singing demanding songs of extravagant praise without a similar concern?
  • Why are some congregations so lukewarm—so allergic to pursuing deeply engaging sincere prayer?
  • Why do so many of churches resist pre-written prayers unless they come in the form of song texts?[14]
  • In a world of impression management and the curated selves of social media, are we practicing ourselves out of ever knowing if we are sincere? How is this changing our view of worship?
  • Why do some churches call attention to sincerity so lavishly, projecting camera shots of enraptured worship leaders on Jumbotron screens, challenging them, ironically, to “project sincerity” even when they aren’t feeling it?[15]
  • Conversely, why would anyone question the value of projecting enraptured worship leaders experiencing sincerity, when it is through ritual imitation that worshipers may well also grow in their capacity for sincere participation?
  • Why do theologians like T. Wright take such a luminous biblical ideal—modeled by Josiah, the publican in the temple, the tenth leper—and then lament the “great modern idol of sincerity”?[16]

Patient engagement with these cross-currents reveals all sorts of internal contradictions and implicit biases, as well as promising discoveries which strengthen our capacity for empathy. Ultimately, these discussions create space not simply to deconstruct constricting approaches to sincerity, but also to reconstruct a capacious alternative.

Correcting Common Astigmatisms

More specifically, I have discovered the value of six “corrective lenses” to common astigmatisms in our more-or-less free-church Protestant way of viewing the world, which I offer here as a work in progress, inviting further ecumenical discussion.

First, a lens of outside-in sincerity corrects the temptation to treat as normative an expressivist approach to liturgical experience, which posits that the concordance of internal experience and external actions happens “inside out” when we pray out of the overflow of what we already think or feel. Jesus’ command to “pray in this way” (Matt. 6:9) offers an alternative, inviting us to apprentice ourselves to a text, rhythm, or gesture originating from outside us. Indeed, to engage in public worship often involves having the boundaries of our small ego-centric selves enlarged by expressions and emotions we never would have imagined on our own.

Second, a lens of vicarious sincerity corrects for the individualistic assumption that all that counts is isolated personal experience. On any given day, my experience aligns with only a small portion of the vast range of human experience compressed into the Bible’s Psalms or a given historic liturgy. But this need not mean that engaging these sentiments is insincere for me. When I may not be able to sincerely sing or pray a given text, I can, nevertheless, ponder who else may be praying that text, and pray it on their behalf. In so doing, I begin to experience freedom from the bondage of the modern, solipsistic self. I taste the joy of ecclesial solidarity.

Third, a lens of trait sincerity corrects an overemphasis on what happens in real time. In a Protestant classroom, it is standard fare for aspiring liturgical leaders to wonder how it will ever be possible for them to always “mean it in the moment”—surely a constricted view of sincerity. Often the wonder of a given liturgical experience is only appreciated retrospectively. Those who rehearse liturgical music or prepare sermons may well experience sincerity prospectively. Further, what we don’t experience as sincere in the moment may well be a sincere expression of who we are becoming over time. While a grateful person may be momentarily distracted during a prayer of thanksgiving, that same liturgical action may correspond well with their way of being in the world. Dispositional traits outlast emotion states.[17]

Fourth, a lens of symbiotic sincerity corrects the temptation to treat sincerity as an independent end in itself. Sincerity, by itself, is never sufficient, attaching as it does to any theological conviction. History is replete with sincere moralists, Pelagians, Donatists, and narcissists. Few people are excited by the sincere expression of a muddled or self-deceived mind–or of the swirling cauldron of sentiments that typically comprise each of our interior lives. (In the present age, if everyone was perfectly sincere all the time, life could be quite miserable).[18] This is why in contrast to modern definitions of sincerity as “being true to oneself,” Christian accounts insist on linking sincerity with something beyond itself. Paul’s injunction “Let us celebrate the festival with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (I Cor. 5:8) points the way, emphasizing both purity of intention and a grounding in the truth of Christ. The modern idol of sincerity is sincerity separated from truth, rudderless self-expression. Without this lens in place, my students may well miss how sincerity in those earlier Oratre Fratres essays was always dependent upon a vivid sacramental vision.

Fifth, a lens of sincerity as gift corrects the temptation to assume that sincerity can be engineered from within or coerced from without. No voice cracking, eye-closing, story-telling, silence enforcing, musical modulating, driving rhythm, spiritual discipline or anything else in all creation can ultimately produce sincerity. Ultimately, overcoming insincerity is a gift of the Holy Spirit, working in and through our disciplines and practices.

Finally, a lens of aspirational sincerity corrects for the temptation to treat sincerity as a stable part of Christian experience, rather than an eschatological goal, realized only in part in the present age. As my students gratefully note, when doing a sit-up or practicing a scale, our muscles rarely feel sincere. But once these exercises do their work, our muscles are freed for more sincere service in a track meet or piano recital. So, too, while stretching liturgical experiences focus our attention at first on our discomfort with them, they later create the conditions for recognition of sincerity’s grace. When we slip into an overly realized liturgical vision, we fail to acknowledge the fleeting nature of even the most robust experiences of liturgical sincerity. When we slip into an under-realized liturgical vision, we despair of ever experiencing the nearness of God and the transformation of the human spirit. But when we treat sincerity eschatologically, we create space for tolerating periods of liturgical dryness—and quiet growth—without losing hope.

When my (mostly) free church Protestants contemplate sincerity with these corrective lenses in place, their capacities (and mine) for empathy, ecumenical recognition, common learning, and robust liturgical participation grow stronger. I like to think that the editors of Oratre Fratres would be pleasantly surprised.

John D. Witvliet is director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and professor of music and worship at Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and he also teaches in the religion department at Calvin College. He earned the  Ph.D. in liturgical studies from Notre Dame University.

[1] John Hennig, “Sincerity,” Orate Fratres 18 (1944), 166-173; Paul Doncoeur, S.J., “Sincerity in the Liturgical Apostolate,“ Orate Fratres 23 (1949), 303-312.

[2] Edward Muir, Ritual in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge University Press, 1997), 269; John Martin, “Inventing Sincerity, Refashioning Prudence: The Discovery of the Individual in Renaissance Europe,” The American Historical Review 105 (1997), 1326; Lori Branch, Rituals of Spontaneity (Baylor University Press, 2006); Ramie Targoff, Common Prayer: The Language of Public Devotion in Early Modern England (University of Chicago Press, 2001).

[3] Branch, 53.

[4] John Halsey Wood, Jr. Going Dutch in the Modern Age (Oxford University. Press, 2013), 42-70.

[5] Lionie Brialey, “How Can We Lose When We’re So Sincere?: Varieties of Sincerity in Peanuts,” in The Comics of Charles Schulte, ed. Jared Gardner, Ian Gordon (University of Mississippi Press, 2017), 79-92; R. Jay Magill, Jr. Sincerity: How a Moral Ideal Born Five Hundred Years Ago Inspired Religious Wars, Modern Art, Hipster Chic and the Curious Notion that We All Have Something to Say (No Matter How Dull) (Norton 2012).

[6] Webb Keane, “From Fetishism to Sincerity: On Agency, the Speaking Subject, and Their Historicity in the Context of Religious Conversion,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 39.4 (Oct. 1997): 682.

[7] Seligman, 117.

[8] Giles Constable, “The Concern for Sincerity and Understanding in Liturgical Prayer, Especially in the Twelfth Century,” in Classica et Mediaevalia: Studes in Honor of Joseph Szövérffy (Classical Folia), 1986, 17-30; Michael Bright, Cities Built to Music: Aesthetic Theories of the Victorian Gothic Revival (Ohio State University Press, 1984), 106

[9] Guardini, Spirit of the Liturgy (Herder and Herder, 1998), 84; The Journals of Father Alexander Schmemann, 1973-1983 (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002).

[10] Nathaniel Marx, ‘Ritual in the Age of Authenticity: An Ethnography of Latin Mass Catholics’ (Ph.D. Diss., University of Notre Dame, 2013), 340.

[11] Yet with gratitude for the robust discussion of this kind of spectrum in Adam B. Seligman et al, Ritual and Its Consequences: An Essay on the Limits of Sincerity (Oxford University Press, 2008).

[12] An expansion of a model in Mark Chaves, Congregations in America (Harvard University Press, 2004), 145-165.

[13] See, for example, Tanya Luhrmann, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God (Alfred A. Knopf, 2012).

[14] Isaac Watts critiqued set prayers (Guide to Prayer, 1715), but also wrote one of the most influential collection of Protestant set prayers ever produced–in the form of a hymnal.

[15] Chris Haw, “Ritual of Sincerity: A Response to ‘Worship at Willow Creek,” America (Feb. 6, 2014); Andy Crouch, “Stonewashed Worship: Churches are Striving to Appear ‘Authentic’—Like the Rest of our Culture,” Christianity Today 49.5 (Feb. 2005): 89.

[16] N. T. Wright, Small Faith, Great God (IVP Books, 2010), 99.

[17] Amy Plantinga Paauw, “Attending to the Gap Between Beliefs and Practices,” in Practicing Theology: Beliefs and Practices in Christian Life (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 44; Gabriel Marcel, Creative Fidelity (Noonday Press, 1964).

[18] Magill, 224.


  1. When I was in college I made friends with Catholics who were really into Praise and Worship style music. They invited me to para-liturgical gatherings and sometimes to “Praise and Worship” Masses – even an event in an old warehouse. Most of them were what I would call serious rather conservative Catholics and I never doubted their sincerity when they swayed their arms and “fell down in the Spirit,” but for me it was completely insincere. I waved my arms and sang along to blend in and not distract the others. So it seems to me that different people find different things sincere.

    As a “Latin Mass Catholic,” I find the Latin Mass gives a lot of room for sincerity that often can’t be found other places. If you like following along with all the texts, responding, and singing (the usual post-conciliar ideal), then you can. If you like following along with all the Mass prayers and meticulously making the 50-something signs of the cross, but not utter a word, you can. If you like praying the Rosary or following along with devotional prayers, you typically can. If you just want to spend the whole time quietly watching, you can. At the Mass I attend, there’s even a guy who sort of sways and dances the whole time – but that’s unusual and I think Latin Mass people tend to get used to folks who are kind of quirky (at least in larger urban areas). At other forms of liturgy, there’s a lot of value placed on conformity.

  2. Numerous points, but the third lens in particular, reminded me of a rather well-known quote from Thomas Merton, which says, in part:

    Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that my desire to please you does in fact please you.

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