I am in Fayetteville, Arkansas for the second session of the New Church Leadership Institute, which is a training to help people plant new churches/faith communities. I grew up in Arkansas, with a seven year interruption during which my family lived in Mississippi so coming back to Arkansas should be a form of coming home. In many ways it is and in many it simply isn't.
When I return "home" to Arkansas, there is so much that is familiar. I remember how much I miss the warm nights, the sound of crickets and tree frogs, and the warmth of the people. People are hospitable, intrested in you, and kind. I hear turns from phrase that I haven't heard since the last time I was here and when I hear them I hear my dad speaking (he passed away four years ago). And yet, even as so much is familiar and reminiscent of home, I realize how I have changed (although if you ask my mom or sister, I've always been a bit on the outside of the culture which reared me).
One of the great challenges that I have faced during these two training events - the same challenge that I faced when I attended the Congress on Evangelism in Atlanta a few years ago - is the contant necessity to filter and translate the language used in talking about ministry, mission, and even about God. Often I struggle to get to the speaker's core message because I get hung up in the colloquialims, cadences, and language choices made by the speakers. What catches me up?
*When people talk about "unbelievers" and "believers." I want to know exactly what they mean by that. I make assumptions and translate this language into what I would have it mean, but I'm not sure if it's exactly what they do mean.
*Talk about "bringing people to Christ." I never understood this even when I lived here. Is this simply a prayer, a profesion, or a new way of life in which a person learns to walk the way of Christ? Too often it just sounds like a profession - a statement with no long-term impact. Some speakers talk about a life of discipleship - this is language I understand. Is discipleship what others mean when they speak of "bringing someone to Christ?"
*"Lord (Father) just..." is a phrase that creeps into prayers. I never heard it growing up. "Lord, we just ask you to, Lord, fill ___ with your power, Lord, so she can bring the lost to you. Lord, we just..." I don't know why a little smile crosses my lips when I hear prayer expressed in this way. This is a perfectly fine way to pray; it's "just" that it isn't my way.
*Saving souls for Jesus. Hmmmm. I am a Wesleyan with a strong understanding of salvation, but there's something about this phrase that catches me up. I get hung. I pause and wonder if the speaker and I really mean the same thing. And, sometimes, I am quite sure that we aren't.
*When speakers talk of the supernatural. I have a strong and abiding belief in the mystical presence and infinite ability of God, but that word - "supernatural" - just makes me shake my head. To me, that relegates God to a marginal position. I clearly hold a negative feeling toward the word "supernatural" when used in conjunction with God and God's power.
*The conversation between the preacher/presenter and the congregation/conference attendees. I grew up in a United Methodist church in Arkansas. The loudest unplanned sound I ever heard was a hymnal falling off a pew. While I certainly visited many churches with lively conversations punctuated with "Well," "Preach it," "Amen" and other things; this conversation simply didn't happen in my white, upper middle class home congregation. But at both NCLI trainings, not only have attendees participated, they have done so vigorously.
None of these differences is in and of themselves good, bad, right, or wrong. They simply highlight the importance of language. These gatherings remind me of how out of sync I might be with visitors that attend the church that I serve, especially those who are unchurched or dechurched or who come from other traditions. Is the language that we use in worship and in our communications (newsletters, bulletins, etc) clear for everyone? I suppose this rambling post is really a reminder to me that I need to be mindful and careful about the language used in teacihng, preaching, and communicating the gospel, the mission of the Church and the nature of God in order to speak through people's filters and reduce the need for translation.
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