From a church bulletin: “Our annual inter-parish basketball tournament begins next Wednesday. Come and watch us KILL Christ the King!”
And from another: “This Sunday’s class: “Jesus Walks on the Water.” Next week: “Searching for Jesus.” Christianity is 2,000 years old and we hold its words to be sacred, so it’s not surprising that sometimes we take those words for granted. In addition, the spiritual and metaphysical dimension of our faith takes us beyond the literal realm of language and into the metaphorical realm, to help us describe transcendental experiences when no English-language words can really evoke what it’s like when God appears in your presence. Often, we look to the language of Scripture for help. Heaven? The image in Revelation: “The city is pure gold, clear as glass...The twelve gates are twelve pearls.” Now THAT I can relate to! Although when John talks about heaven as the place where people “praise God day and night,” one person in the pews was heard to mutter, “That sounds more like hell to me.” Of course, we don’t want heaven to sound like hell, and Jesus to sound like he drowned while trying to perform a miracle. There are other great ways to promote Christianity and to welcome people into the church. But the Bible is our foundation, and the English language here in America is our vehicle for communicating. The trouble is, when we put those two so-familiar sets of words together with an insider’s point of view, it’s easy to come up with promotional materials that sound neither devotional nor invitational. And in this critical time for the church—with a pandemic and the search for a new rector and the general decline in religious affiliations, among other things—we need to re-examine how we can promote our church and our faith thoughtfully. The Bible is great for people who are already faithful. But when adults, who have never been exposed to Christianity or the Bible, have asked me to suggest some passages that might help them, I recommend that they read a good children’s Bible first, to know the stories. Because how do you think a newcomer to Christianity would react to this passage from 2 Corinthians? “For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; to the one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life.” Let alone a sentence that we take for granted but never really understand what it means: “Jesus died for our sins.” The Bible is full of these. I understand that Paul was using a metaphor, and the Bible is full of metaphors. As Christians who are, as Jesus said, in the world but not of the world, we need the world’s words and images to talk about what it’s like to be “of the Kingdom but not of the world,” and yes! Another outdated metaphor! So, God is not subject to term limits! Metaphors are very helpful when we don’t have the literal words. But they can be tricky, as shown by this definition from a test submitted by a high school student: “A Virgin Forest is one in which the hand of man has never set foot.” That’s what happens when we forget that words matter, and words in a bunch matter even more. When we combine our lackadaisical use of the English language with our desire to proclaim the radical Biblical message of Jesus Christ to the world, we often end up with a great marketing tool for insiders. “Jesus walks on the water. Searching for Jesus.” We know what that means. But the “outsiders,” the ones we want to attract to the church, may be confused. When I first came to the Episcopal Church, it was very confusing. I didn’t know what the words “laity,” “clergy,” and “liturgy” meant, not to mention words like “Episcopal” and “Eucharist.” Meet in the Narthex? I went downstairs to the “Undercroft” by mistake. Those are part of church-speak for insiders. Of course, nearly all groups have insider language. An anthology of essays about the English language mentions a few: legalese, bureaucratese, prison language, architect talk, doctor talk, and my favorite: “machinespeak.” In machinespeak, the song “Farmer in the Dell” goes like this: §DEF, VERSE, <_1_1 Hey ho the merry o _1 >; §DEF, LINE, _2 < the _1 wants a _2>; §DEF, FORM, <§VERSE, §LINE,_1,_2;;>; §VERSE, The farmer in the dell; §FORM, farmer, wife; §FORM, wife, child; §FORM, child, dog; §FORM, dog, cat; §FORM, cat, rat; §FORM, rat, cheese; §FORM, VERSE, The cheese stands alone; Of course, it’s important to have insider language for insiders. But for outsiders, seekers, guests, and newcomers, we cannot take our language for granted. Marketing a program is different from announcing one. A sign outside the Cathedral when I first arrived proclaimed in large letters, just in time for the Flying Pig runners to see: “CATECHESIS OF THE GOOD SHEPHERD.” Huh? Or the newcomer’s class several years ago titled ‘VIA MEDIA.” Welcoming? I think not. What words, what language do we use to promote our church for 21st century people in dire need of spiritual sustenance and hope in the middle of a health and economic crisis? Do we say “We offer radical hospitality,” or do we say “Welcome!” Have you ever used the words “fellowship,” “behold,” or “outreach” in your daily life? How can we capture the true Christian and St. Barnabas spirit using the awesomely-evolved 21st century English language? This is part of our transformation into a church of the 21st century, in a community of modern people who speak regular language. It’s a fascinating challenge! During Epiphany, may Christ be manifest in you, and may your light shine among others! For as St. Peter said, “Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith.” And bless your heart.
I would love to hear your reactions and thoughts! Please respond at firstname.lastname@example.org and let’s have a conversation!