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The church as abbey: Why rituals are important

December 23, 2007

Copticpainting1_2 In the Celtic Christian abbey, the compound was open to all who needed food, lodging, or care. As the monks’ pagan neighbors entered the abbey, they were greeted with many familiar sights — monks or nuns preparing meals in the kitchen, stacking wood for the fire, copying manuscripts, or working in the fields.

But, they also encountered the unfamiliar — strange rituals like making the sign of the cross, breaking bread and sharing a common cup, kneeling, bowing, and prostrating oneself.

Learning How to Be A ChristianThese were the rituals of Christianity, practiced by monks and nuns in the abbey, and taught to their pagan neighbors who wished to become Christians. Pagans literally learned how Christians acted by seeing, practicing, and repeating these strange behaviors. These behaviors became so ingrained in the life of the convert that they became part of his or her daily routine.

When an Irish convert needed courage, instead of an incantation from their druid past, they prayed a prayer to Christ. The famous breastplate of St. Patrick is the most outstanding example of this type of praying. The Carmina Gaedelica is a collection of everyday prayers from Celtic life — prayers for starting the fire, washing one’s face, sweeping the house, and working at the loom. (I’ve got a copy in my office if you want a copy.)

Other rituals, such as making the sign of the cross, became automatic responses to the happenstances of primitive life. Celtic Christians learned through words, patterns, and symbols what made them distinct from their pagan Druid kinsmen in actions and belief.

Loss of Rituals in the Seeker Church

Fast-forward to the 20th and 21st century. The “seeker service” model suggests that people come to Christ most easily if we remove “religious” symbols. This strategy works well to attract new people to “seeker sensitive” churches, but unlike the Celtic abbeys, some seeker churches never introduce new Christians to the actions, behaviors and symbols that signify the Christian faith.

Many church buildings are constructed without baptistries or baptismal fonts because baptism is practiced in swimming pools and lakeshores. Communion Is not observed in many seeker churches, or it is relegated to a special service outside the regular pattern of worship. All of this is done because it is thought that symbols and rituals obscure the gospel message. But just the opposite is true.

The Importance of Ritual

Rituals, practices, and symbols are important because they give us external behaviors to express internal commitments. We learn how to “act like a Christian” by doing the things Christians do. So, new converts participate in baptism, receive communion, and are catechized as part of learning how we act in this strange new community called the church.

Without ritual, patterns, and symbols our practice of the Christian faith is stripped of actions that cause us to remember and draw strength from our interior faith. Rituals give us behaviors, individually and corporately, that reinforce our common beliefs. The missional congregation particularly seeks to be distinctly Christian in its behaviors, symbols, and practices — whether ancient or contemporary — because that is part of what we do as a contrast society.

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