I read this part earlier this morning:
Sermons were becoming more common in churches. They had been rare when Philip was a boy. Abbot Peter had been against them, saying they tempted the priest to indulge himself. The old-fashioned view was that the congregation should be mere spectators, silently witnessing the mysterious holy rites, hearing the Latin words without understanding them, blindly trusting in the efficacy of the priest's intercession. But ideas had changed. Progressive thinkers nowadays no longer saw the congregation as mute observers of a mystical ceremony. The Church was supposed to be an integral part of their everyday existence. It marked the milestones in their lives, from christening, through marriage and the birth of children, to extreme unction and burial in consecrated ground. It might be their landlord, judge, employer or customer. Increasingly, people were expected to be Christians every day, not just on Sundays. They needed more than just rituals, according to the modern view: they wanted explanations, rulings, encouragement, exhortation. (Follett, Ken. Pillars of the Earth. Penguin Group, USA. November 2007. p. 533)Wow. That's what I feel like I'm working with now- 1800 years later. Except I don't know that I ever had an idea that the Church was landlord, judge, etc. (though sometimes a church is). Even in this hardscrabble English village, people know there is something more they can get from their ecclesial experience.
Somehow, though, we're still in this framework. The Church provides certain services, particularly to its members, and eyes the rest of the world (and life) with suspicion or from a distance. Even now, when churches are struggling, the greatest concern is turning inward and being sure we continue to care for those who are already inside. Yet, that's hardly what Jesus did, encouraged or commanded. The Bible consoles, but it also charges, convicts and creates.
I think we are, again or still, in a time and place where people don't want empty ritual. They want meaning, understanding and purpose. But those things come with a price. They mean examining God's desire for the world and trying to align ourselves with that desire (as opposed to aligning God with ourselves). "Explanation, rulings, encouragement [and] exhortation" all come with great pressure to the preacher and to the congregation.
The leader must seek God's vision and be brave in proclaiming it. The congregation must realize that what they are hearing is meant to stir up, not smooth down, move forward, not put down, and open conversation, not shut it down.
I don't preach to indulge myself, but because the Word doesn't sit silently within me. It agitates me until it comes out- in one way or another. (If you've ever talked to me, you understand how that happens eventually.) However, I can indulge myself in preaching- I could fall more easily to consolation than challenge and, thus, neglect the exhortation- that part that's supposed to get people (you) moving.
"Increasingly, people were expected to be Christians every day, not just Sunday." I know that. I think congregations know that. Am I equipping people to live that way? Are we encouraging one another to live that way?
Indeed the church has lasted beyond the 12th century because of the people who carried the Word out and forward. There are always mysteries about faith, but we don't have to be mysterious about faith. The more open, the more focused, the more determined we are to carry the gospel into the far corners of the earth, the more we realize that the Spirit has gone ahead of us and goes with us yet.
We have to move beyond the rituals. We're still working on that.