I had begun to think that it was just me - just a part of my "adjustment" about not being in the pulpit every Sunday. Probably more my ego than anything else, I thought, tinged with a bit of "healthy neurosis" that besets many of us who wear a collar.
But, this article from the Alban Institute has me thinking that it's not just me.
Actually, the article is excerpted and adapted from Becoming a Blessed Church: Forming a Church of Spiritual Purpose, Presence and Power, by N. Graham Standish.
Here's what originally caught my eye:
Many denominations, churches, pastors, and members have become mired in a series of worthless arguments in their attempt to diagnose why mainstream denominations and churches are in decline. Many churches simply aren't open to God. They let the will, ego, and purpose of the dominant voices in their congregation, whether the pastor's or that of a few strong members, drive the agenda. Instead of seeking God's call and purpose, they argue over who is right and wrong. Declining churches tend not to be open to God's presence. They worship, meet, and engage in ministry and mission, but their sense is that God is in heaven, we are on earth, and all that matters is doing good deeds. The congregants have no sense that Christ is in their midst, and that this presence of Christ can bless them and make their churches places of love. So they continue to engage in the practices of the church, but they don't expect an encounter with Christ.I don't think there are too many churches in decline in my neighborhood. Most of them are either making modest gains (I heard one rector talk about how, thus far, there were 17 new pledges in his congregation), or holding their own (the losses are made up by the increases and everyone sighs a sigh of relief for another year).
Mostly, that's because going to church is part of the culture here. It's simply what one does on Sunday morning. And, if one doesn't, one might have a bit of 'splainin' to do with one's neighbors.
I can't think of one person in my neighborhood - or even those folks who come to the house to service my heating system, or the occasional leaky faucet or roof, or for renovation - who hasn't invited me to "their" church. Usually, it's for a Pot Luch Supper or some "event". Pastors here have gotten the message out to "invite someone to church" - and it's been heard.
Lately, however, I've gotten bold and pushed the point. I've been asking about Jesus. You know, how they experience the Risen Christ in their midst.
Mostly, I get a stammered response, accompanied by some words about how the music is good or the sermons are "helpful". Sometimes, even, "very helpful".
I usually ignore the comments about music. Everyone has an appreciation for the "entertainment value" of church music.
When I ask about the sermons and why they are helpful, what I mostly get is "Well, I learn so much about the Bible". Emboldened, I ask, "But, do you learn how to apply the Bible to your daily life?" The response is usually a quizzical look. Like, what does that have to do with sermon? Or, church?
Standish calls this "rational functionalism". Here's what he says about it:
Rational functionalism is rooted in the idea that we can uncover the mysteries of life and the universe mainly through rational thought and disciplined investigation. It is the tendency of denominations, their congregations, and their leaders to subscribe to a view of faith and church rooted in a restrictive, logic-bound theology that ignores the possibility of spiritual experiences and miraculous events.What really sparked this whole thing for me was an experience I had at church on Sunday. The Second Sunday in Advent is almost always "John the Baptist Sunday" in which we encounter the wild man dressed in camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, eating wild locust and honey. This year, we meet him in Mark 1:1-8.
No matter the year in the Lectionary Cycle, I love the lessons for this Sunday. John the Baptist always stands for me as the symbolic part of myself that is simply wild with expectation about God's presence in my life. His is "the voice of one, crying out in the wilderness" to prepare the way of the Lord, which we hear in Isaiah 40:1-11.
I was aware that I was mildly excited to hear how the preacher would "connect the dots" of what we are experiencing in our world today with this wild expectation and preparation for the re-awakening of and re-awareness of God's presence in our lives.
Well, what I heard was a sermon on the Collect. Indeed, none of the lessons were referred to, except in passing, and, only to prove the point of the Collect. Which was:
Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.Actually, it was not a sermon. It was a lecture. And, it wasn't on the Collect, actually. The Collect was simply a springboard for a little "talk" from the pulpit about sin - something our preacher told us doesn't happen very often. Or, often enough, apparently.
It was a good "talk". A fine "talk". It was even blessedly brief. I learned a great deal about the Seven Deadly Sins and the pros and cons of each one. And, at the end, we were invited to consider our own sins in this "penitential season of Advent". Which, I suppose, moved it from a strict lecture and more into the realm of a sorta-kinda meditation.
Forget about the part that Advent is about preparation not penitence. This was not a sermon. It was a "talk". It was all conceived and addressed from the neck up.
It was "rational functionalism".
Here's more of what Standish says:
In churches caught in the grip of rational functionalism, sermons tend to become academic papers read to the people in the pews. They don't address more basic issues: How are we supposed to endure living with pain, loneliness, and turmoil? How are we supposed to find God amid life's darkness? Bible studies focus on the historical, sociological, economic, and cultural issues of the time, with the intent of uncovering what theological message the writer of a Bible passage is trying to impart. They don't address more basic issues: What is God saying to me through the Scripture about how to live my life? What is God saying to me about what God is doing in my life, especially in the face of my suffering? How is God calling me to love others and to reach out to those who are suffering, both near and throughout the world, and who are in need of God's love as well as mine?You see, it's not that the "sermon" was bad. It's just that it wasn't a sermon.
I understand. Writing and delivering the kind of sermon Standish is talking about is like playing with fire. It requires that you strip down naked and wrestle with the text for hours - doing all the Bible study stuff and then examining your own life and taking a deep look at what is going on in the world and in your community.
When you do that work, you are playing with the fire of the Gospel. But sometimes ......... sometimes... ..... every once in a while....if you're really lucky .... someone .... some one person .... in the congregation, is listening ..... really listening .... and, begins to catch fire, too.
Or, at least, something in their soul begins to heat up or is "strangely warmed".
And, the danger of that, of course, is that, in Gospel-centered, non-rational functionalism, the emphasis is not on preaching for the sake of preaching - not to create a check-list of another part of the liturgy done - but, rather, to create an atmosphere wherein the congregation can experience an awareness of - deepening relationship with - the presence of the living God in our midst.
Here's what I think. I think we're most afraid of that. We're all about "teh nice" - especially in The Episcopal Church. We're all about "teh feel-good" - at least for one hour per week.
As one of my former Senior Wardens told me, "I see church as a neighborhood Ice Cream truck, delivering good things to people."
Still makes me go, "Yuck!"
It's a fearful thing to have an awareness of the presence - or the coming - of the living God. I mean, look what it did to John the Baptist!
I understand. When you play with fire, somebody could get burned. Sometimes, it's the preacher. Sometimes, people begin to be more concerned with living a Christian life than living in the institutional church and, God knows, the institutional church doesn't want that!
Here's what Standish says about the expectations of a church which he distinguishes from one that operates on "rational functionalism" - one he calls "blessed".
In blessed churches, people not only expect to experience God; they do experience God. Their expectations open the door to God, who stands knocking. They expect to hear the Creator's voice guiding the church to what it is called to be and do. They expect to encounter and be blessed by Christ. They expect the power of God the Holy Spirit to flow through their life and the church's, blessing them in so many ways.Maybe the problem is that, in this Season of Expectation (NOT Penitence), I'm expecting too much.
My kids gave me a coffee mug once, for my birthday. On the outside of the mug it said, "If you expect me to live up to your expectations .....", and on the inside it said, "....lower your expectations".
Look, I'm not looking for a "WOW!" every Sunday. I don't need a praise band to get my blood pumping and I certainly don't need someone shouting, "Jeeeessssuuusss" every 10 seconds.
I am not looking for a Bible Study from the pulpit. Neither am I looking for an Adult Forum lecture or meditation on a "topic related to Scripture" or one silently entitled, "How to live a good Christian life".
I guess I feel like those men in John's Gospel (12:21) who said, "Sir, we wish to see Jesus."
I want to see someone honestly struggling with how to live the Gospel in her/his life. I want to see someone who has had an encounter with the Risen Christ, and speaks from that experienced place of authenticity and integrity and truth.
I want someone who can play with some Gospel fire. Right from the pulpit. Right in front of God and everyone. And, be unashamed about it.
I guess I am, after all, a real Anglican. I want Word and Sacrament. I want the Word to be broken open and I want to be fed by it in the same way the Bread is broken and shared so we all can be nourished and fed. And, in Standish's word, "blessed".
I guess I'd even settle for some locust and wild honey. I'll just pass on the pablum.
I may have to head to the Presbyterian Church nearby. I hear the preaching team there is really good. They even have a sermon discussion group after the sermon.
What would it be like to talk with other Christians about the gospel instead of arguing about theological positions, styles of worship, availability of programs, or to not have to worry about being too liberal or too conservative or not orthodox enough?
Hmmmm ...... What an intriguing thought. Sounds positively wonderful to me.
Then again, I just might be playing with fire.