I often wonder what it’s like to walk into church for the very first time. Long term exposure to church culture can quickly cause the “objectivity muscle” to atrophy. We go about our business, speaking the native language, practicing the rituals, forgetting that, to the unbelieving public, there is a major cultural barrier between us and them. Church, as it turns out, is a massive culture shock! And the language we use is a major factor.
One of my favorite examples of breaking this language and cultural barrier comes from Acts 17. Paul has been dragged up to the aeropagus to satisfy the curiosity of the Athenians. I find his first few sentences very telling, and very intriguing. He explains that while he has been there he has been “perceiving” and “observing” various aspects of their religious habits, citing inscriptions on altars to the “unknown god.” He was speaking their language. He took time to listen to the culture and desired to answer the questions they were asking, even if they weren’t verbalizing them. And what did they do? They let him in and said “we will here you again about this.” And that was right after he made claims about the dead being resurrected! He listened, he spoke their language, he answered their questions, and as a result some became believers and joined him. Paul was a master at tearing down walls.
In his book Branding Faith, branding and media expert Phil Cooke observes that we have entered into a “post-Christian society.” What he means by this is that we have isolated ourselves from the language and values of the culture outside of the Church in the same way that (post-modern) society has isolated itself by simply not acknowledging the Church’s values as society once did. Our worlds simply can no longer communicate with each other.
Fixing the Problem
What will it take to fix this church language breakdown? How can we learn to speak the language of the people we’re trying to attract? Here are a few possible starting points.
- Stop talking and listen. Listen to what the culture is asking and begin to answer those questions, as Paul did in Athens. More and more you will pick up the language and learn how to communicate more effectively.
- When the time comes to open your mouth, speak in a dialect they can understand. The “Christianese” and inside buzzlingo won’t translate. Worry less about sound bytes and Tweetables, and more about loving the people you’re trying to reach.
- Respect what they have to say, even if you don’t agree. Communication, as it turns out, is a two-way street. It’s unreasonable to expect that those we reach out to will instantly have the same values and “speech habits” that we do. A little respect will go a long way as they grow to trust your words and actions.
- Compelle Intrare – compell them to come in. With so many demands on our attention, it amazes me that anything ever gets through. As a Christian, my attention is already on my relationship with Christ. But that is obviously not the case with the culture outside of the Church. We must prove to be worthy of their attention just to get them in the door and there are many methods of achieving that. We just have to learn to speak their language.
How have your communications efforts surmounted the church language barrier? Share your thoughts in the comments.