Have you ever studied another language? There are advantages in learning another language. Our country is multilingual, as immigrants from around the world come here to live and work. We are richer when we can communicate with one another. In Germany earlier this month I found myself in a restaurant on day with a staff that knew no English, and table-mates who knew no German. It was a matter of resurrecting my high school German, or taking our chances with wild luck. Learning the idioms and pronunciation of another language can stretch your imagination. You learn about another culture. Studying a language stretches your heart as well as your mind. A gym in our town even advertises in the paper that they offer Spanish as well as workouts.
I am all for learning more languages. But what I am advocating here is not taking Spanish or Turkish or Chinese lessons (please do, if you want to!), but rather learning the language of our culture. Montana (including the parts of Wyoming that are in our Synod) has a little over a million people, and only about 40,000 of them are members of our congregations. That means that there are over 900,000 who are not members of our congregations, and even when you subtract another couple hundred thousand who are members of other religious groups, there are a
lot of people out there who are not involved religiously at all.
I am convinced that one of the issues—not everything, but one—is language. In the church we speak a particular language. It is theological—we speak about atonement and ascension and justification and eschatology and theophany. It is ecclesial—we invite people to the narthex and the chancel, we argue whether to use a pulpit or an ambo, we dress the pastor in an alb and stole and negotiate the benefits of a chasuble. It is chummy—we make announcements that refer to people by first name only, we invite people to groups with unidentified initials, and we greet the people we know and exchange chats during the passing of the peace.
Much of this means nothing to people who have not been in this church before, or perhaps any church. So my first piece of advice here is to invite a sharp observer to listen to everything that you do and say and print during a service of worship, and make a list of all the words that are not inherently obvious to a person walking in off the street. Look at that list. Consider which of those words on the list are essential to who you are as a congregation, and which are not. Think about creating a glossary of terms for people. I’ll bet you’ll find that newcomers will not be the only ones who appreciate it. Am I suggesting that you “dumb down” everything that you do, or that you edit “the holy other” out of worship? No. I am suggesting that you look at how you invite people into your congregation’s ministry, and how you might think about it.
My second piece of advice is to learn another language. And, no, it does not have to be Spanish or Urdu. Learn the language of your culture. Learn the language of youth, of young adults. Learn the language of AA, learn the language of people who live on the edge of poverty.
The most effective missionaries have always been the ones who have learned the language of the people they serve, who have listened respectfully, and have found ways to adapt concepts into different cultures. The challenge for missionaries, always, is to separate the essence of the Gospel from the culture in which they learned it, and to help integrate it into the culture where they find themselves.
We live in a time when church-going Christianity is on the decline. The numbers around us prove it. We can no longer assume that our friends and neighbors, our co-workers and colleagues have the slightest knowledge about Jesus. Our task is to find ways to tell the story in ways that our listeners can hear, in their language. You don’t learn a language on your own. You learn it by listening, by interacting, and by trial and error.
We know from the Gospel of John, that “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” However inadequate our language might be, it is the
Word that gives us life, the Word that gives us life. “The light shines in the darkness, and the
darkness did not overcome it.” Thanks be to God.
Bishop Jessica Crist
Words from the Bishop—“Called together by God to pray together as one, be present in our state’s broken places, and to walk in the freedom and openness of the Holy Spirit”
We are in the midst of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. This annual celebration of Christian ecumenism starts each year on January 18, (the Confession of St. Peter), and ends on January 25, (the Conversion of St. Paul.) In many communities congregations of different denominations have special joint services of worship, to show solidarity in Christ.
Seeking unity with other Christians is essential to who we are as Lutherans. One of our Synod benchmarks is “Promote Unity.” We cherish our unique Lutheran heritage and emphases. But we also seek common ground with others who follow Christ. As a denomination, the ELCA has full communion agreements with 6 other churches—The Presbyterian Church USA, the United Church of Christ, the Reformed Church in America, The Moravians, The Episcopal Church and the United Methodist Church. And we have significant agreements and conversations with other groups, including AME Zion and Roman Catholic, as well as Orthodox.
In the Montana Synod we work together ecumenically with the Wyoming Association of Churches and the Montana Association of Christians (formerly Montana Association of Churches.) Both organizations are made up of a majority of mainline Protestant denominations, and both are working on state legislative agendas during the legislative sessions. MAC has recently re-organized, and now welcomes not only denominations, but also congregations and individuals as members. You can find a link to our website, where you will find both an invitation to join and a congregational membership covenant. I encourage you to consider congregational and individual membership in MAC.
And Monday, January 26 will be MAC Day at the Legislature. You can find information on our website as well. We’ll begin at St. John’s Lutheran Church, at 8:30 AM with prayer, and move to the Capitol. This is a good way to thank our legislators for their service, and to let them know what we, as Christians, are working on together. MAC does not take on every issue—just the ones we share across our denominations. This year’s issues are: abolition of the death penalty and replacing it with life imprisonment without parole; well-being of children; care for immigrants; returning prisoners to society.
Another of our Synod benchmarks is: “Serve the world, especially the poor and those in need.” Through MAC and WAC we attempt to do just that. As Christians we believe that God loved the world, the whole world. And we are called to love the world, too. As Christians working together, we can show God’s love to a world in great need.
Bishop Jessica Crist
“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, thereis no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3: 28)
Monday is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day It is a time when we honor the memory of a man of God who lived and died for justice. But the day is bigger than the memory of one person. It is a day when we reflect on the principles for which Martin Luther King, Jr. stood.
It is an opportunity for Americans to pause and contemplate the state of race relations in the United States, and in the world. We have come a long way in the struggle for civil right in this country, and recent events have reminded us that we still have a long way to go.
I was recently in Memphis, the city where Dr. King was assassinated. Do you remember that day? He was in Memphis helping the sanitation workers organize for safer working conditions and human dignity. Their slogan, which you still see in banners and murals, was “I am a man.” It wasn’t about gender. It was about humanity. “I, too, am human.”
Dr. King was shot as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, one of the few motels in Memphis at which African-Americans were welcome. His assassin shot him from a rooming house across the street. Today both the rooming house and the motel are part of a memorial—the National Civil Rights Museum. The Museum focuses not only on the struggle for racial equality in the United States. It also looks at the struggle globally, lifting up Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Mahatma Gandhi and many others.
Last week I was in East Germany, visiting sites important to the Reformation, and also learning about “The Velvet Revolution.” In Leipzig we learned of the role of the churches in praying for freedom, and in empowering people to engage in massive demonstrations of non-violence. It was these huge non-violent demonstrations, in large measure, that led to the opening up of the totalitarian state. And it began in the churches. And they relied on the example and the writings and the inspiration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The churches in East Germany were a powerful force for justice.
The East German state was officially atheistic, and Christians were penalized for standing with the church. We live in a country that prides itself on freedom of religion. Our churches have both an opportunity and an obligation to make a difference in society. Some congregations work at issues of hunger, through hunger appeals and food banks. Others are involved in advocacy on either a local or state or national level.
As we celebrate Martin Luther King Day, let us ask ourselves how our churches are a force for justice.
Bishop Jessica Crist
Bishop Jessica Crist
Bishop of the Montana Synod of the ELCA