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