Formalism is an outlook which focuses on outward religious rites more than on inward heart attitude. Just as legalism seeks to reform the inward by focusing on outward behavior, formalism shifts the focus from the inward to things like rituals and observance of sacred calendars and liturgies. Of course, every Christian group and individual has forms through which they express or practice their faith. And any of these forms has the potential to replace a real heart encounter with God.
In many religions, including some that would call themselves Christian, people practice formalistic prayer. Instead of a time of personal relating with God, formalistic prayer becomes a ritual, a form to be followed. Just as you have to push a succession of buttons to get your money from an automatic teller machine, you have to follow various sequences of prayer disciplines to get your blessing from God. This is true whether these stages of prayer reflect your true state of mind or not.
Sometimes, people don't even bother to speak their own words, but instead let religious leaders write their prayers for them. This must have been the case when God uttered one of his clearest rejections of formalism in Isaiah 29:13,14 "Because this people draw near with their words And honor Me with their lip service, but they remove their hearts far from Me, and their reverence for Me consists of tradition learned by rote . . .the wisdom of their wise men shall perish." Today, nothing has changed. The religious mind likes to recite outward forms and formulas "learned by rote." That way, we don't need to put out the effort involved in relating personally.
Formalism Versus Relationship
When people become formalistic, they conclude that a certain sequence of words is what matters rather than the intent of their heart. It may be that people sometimes focus intently on the meaning of a memorized prayer, or one which is written in advance, and therefore are not formalistic even when using such prayers. But it seems odd that we don't relate to others this way. The danger of formalism increases when we do not spontaneously and naturally communicate to God, but rely instead on pre-written or memorized prayers.
In some religious groups, prayers are bought with money. Religious functionaries can be hired to repeat a prayer on someone else's behalf for a certain fee, even if that other person is already dead! This is odd when we consider that Jesus taught against meaningless repetition in prayer. (Matthew 6:7,8)
In some Buddhist sects, the worshippers can spin prayer wheels as they enter a shrine. As the wheel spins, a printed prayer passes by a stylus, thus repeating the prayer over and over. A portable version can be held in the hand and spun like a toy. In this extreme type of formalism we see clearly the machine-like image of prayer, and by implication, of God.
Such examples are extreme, but sometimes it helps to look at some of the more extreme examples in order to get the idea. We would be mistaken, however, if we thought formalism only appears in these more outlandish interpretations. In fact, any of us can lapse into formalistic prayer if we fail to consciously resist it. Sometimes the line between formalism and reality in spiritual things is harder to detect, and seeing it requires keen spiritual sensitivity.
Let's take a couple of examples. Many Christians find it helpful to have a short time of prayer before meals. First thing in the morning is another popular time for prayer, as is "when I lay me down to sleep." These regular parts of our day can serve as reminders to pray, and we are creatures of habit. Could these times also become formalistic? How would we know if they were?
Clearly, the mere fact that we pray at regular times does not mean we are formalists. Such a verdict would be a focus on the external in itself. But formalism is not a matter of the outward. It is a deeply inward state of mind; an attitude. To determine whether such practices are formalistic, we need to look deeper.
What is it about formalism which makes it objectionable? Simply put, formalism is impersonal. Formalists can go through their motions without ever addressing God personally. Therefore, we could pray at regular times like these without being formalistic, but if we find we are not making personal contact inwardly with God, then we probably are practicing formalism.
Imagine someone entering your living room and reading out a pre-written statement before turning and leaving. Is this a personal interaction? Suppose your neighbor stops by your house before eating each meal, sticks his head in your door and rattles off the same few words before closing the door and leaving. Would this be personal communication? It might be, if you had dropped off his meal for him and he was just dropping by to thank you for it. But clearly it might not be personal. Formalism is truly an inward attitude, not an outward action.
Sometimes we mouth words of prayer at appropriate times without any thought whatsoever. When we are formalistic, we, like any legalist, can tell ourselves we have prayed several times that day, so all is well. Whether there is any personal reality to our prayer lives is another question.
Escaping formalistic thinking is not always an easy matter. Changing the forms we operate under can give us an opportunity to reevaluate our outlook, but it won't solve the problem. Any form can become formalistic. We may pray very contemporary prayers at odd times and in strange ways but still be as formalistic as ever. This is because what matters is not the forms, but how we view those forms.
The main thing to do when we realize we are relating to God formalistically is to repent and set out to immediately reestablish personal rapport with him at that moment. I find that corporate prayer helps me avoid formalism. By joining into the thoughts of others, and by sharing my prayers with others, I seem to be able to focus my attention for longer periods of time. The perspectives of others challenge my own thoughts, causing me to come out of preconceived or ill-conceived notions and reconsider what God would want. Perhaps this is one of the reasons God calls special attention to the importance of corporate prayer. (Matthew 18:19)