Mind your language!

Monday, 15 December, 2014

Stephen Lindridge warns us to mind our language.

Digging into wide-ranging research from the last few decades to look at how people are coming to faith in Jesus in fresh expressions of church, it has become clear to me that it's important to understand an individual's previous background influences.

Though most people encountered have had little or no previous involvement with any form of church, that doesn't mean their spiritual radar is not switched on. Nor does it mean that they are antagonistic or not interested in spiritual dynamics that will help them in life.

A woman quoted in one such piece of research reflects this desire for 'something more'; a paraphrase of her comments read,

I want to believe there's something after death, a place of comfort and someone loving to meet me there. I hope there's something out there that hears my prayers uttered on the wind and in some way will help me…

She may well have been the type of person to run a mile at any mention of Christian language but, whatever her background, her words could similarly be those of many people born and raised in a Britain which still has much of its cultural and judicial system based on Christian morals and ethics.

Though fewer people seem to be engaging with the established denominations (especially outside of London) it is clear from decades of recent research that their spiritual hunger is not any the less vibrant. David Hay makes the comment in his book Why Spirituality is Difficult for Westerners, (Societas, 2007),

Critics of religion say we are born little atheists and in the process of being socialised we acquire a set of religious beliefs. I say the evidence points almost in exactly the opposite direction.

Abbey Day's social anthropological research into 'Believing in Belonging' - though not exclusive or exhaustive - reframes religious belief in a seven part heuristic of: content, sources, practice, salience, function, place and time. All this arising from inductive empirical research conducted initially in the UK and then expanded for cross-cultural comparisons. This work ostensibly lays the foundation for exploring the question 'is anyone in the British context not de-churched, to some degree?' David Hay sees 'nominalism' as far from an empty category but loaded with cultural meaning towards Christianity in the European and American contexts.

Thousands of fresh expressions of church all across these islands have just begun to connect and reconnect with some of this latent 'nominalism', but we should be far from complacent about how much has already been achieved. So, if we in Christian ministry take this very seriously, it means 'what we do and how we do it' matters a great deal. Sharing the Good News of God's love come to us in Jesus, in ways and language that are apt for our time and place is an opportunity not to be squandered.

Christmas is coming and, with it, many opportunities – including HOPE's Silent Night Carols initiative in sports stadia across the country as well as traditional carol singing in pubs or shopping centres. Whatever we do, let's think about our words during the Christmas season; will they resonate and connect with those not used to church language? In what ways can we say 'God loves you' so that it makes sense to those of our time and place? What can we do that sparks their intrigue so that they might ask, 'Who is this Jesus that you want to live and give, act, and follow his way?'

What's right in your place and time, among those God is reaching out to? Find the salient things that will have a resonance for them; the things that will chime with what's happening in their lives; the things will help draw them closer to Christ at Christmas - and forever.


thanks for this - indeed survey after survey and pieces of detailed research show that whilst many people in Britain have little connection with any religion, hence the rise of the no-religion category in the 2011 Census for instance, most of these people are in some way spiritual and believe there is something 'out there' one might even call God. this is indeed very important for mission, evangelism and fresh expressions. we are not on the whole dealing with a secular atheist population amongst the non-churched, in spite of the air time people like Richard Dawkins recieves.

i don't think however this means people are to some extent de-hurched, if i have understood correctly that is what you suggest. the assertion that the difference between the de-churched and non-churched is important for fresh expressions thinking is not - or need not and should not - be suggesting the non-churched are un spiritual. rather the point is that they do not have a background in Christian spirituality and language and culture and therefore do not express their spirituality in a Christian way, indeed they may well see no connection whatsoever between church or Christianity and their own spiritual experience which they are far more likely to interpret within the framework of more New Age or Pagan concepts. a de-churched spiritual person if open is far easier to communicate with because they understand the language and culture of the Christian faith, non-churched spiritual person won't and thus is likely both to be misunderstood by Christians, often with a negative interpretation of their spirituality and be harder to communicate with.

it is i think really important as you have pointed out to realize many indeed most people with no religion or church connection are spiritual and we can build bridges on that basis. i think though the distinction between the de-churched and non-churched still matters for spiritual people due to the differences in language and culture barrier that demonstrates.

Hi Steve,
Many thanks for your comments and I quite agree the language and distinctions between 'de-churched and non churched' still really matters. You are right this was the point to raise the question and help folk engage in more relevant conversations by exploring what's already part of someone's life story and begin where they are at. Thanks for adding to the conversation. Blessings S

The more I have researched what was going on in first century Judaism, the more I see parallels with the challenge facing us today. Christianity now occupies a similar niche to that filled by first century Pharisaism: an organised religious minority with a clear tradition in both their worship and their morality, and with a strong emphasis on scripture. What we need to understand better is how Jesus navigated his course around that kind of religious tradition as he sought to reach the disenfranchised common people, whose lifestyles fell below the high expectations of the Pharisees.
Jesus' teaching contains almost no religious language, and makes very few direct allusions to law, worship or scripture. He addressed the spiritual anxieties of his day using every day imagery. This, as I understand it, is the direction that Stephen is pointing us.
It is worth comparing the style of conversation when Jesus was in dynamic debate with his pharisaic contemporaries, with the style of his proactive teaching. Jesus' proactive teaching was almost entirely made up of non-religious story and metaphor, and he never explained his parables in public. We would do well to try to follow his example. But it is far from easy - we do love to explain ourselves!

In my experience, the language(s) of Taize does this beautifully,- as well as I have come across.... which I have been enjoying and relating to for 20 years.
Also there is a strong spirituality movement within psychotherapy circles in the USA, which is also relevant.(see Mpho and Desmond Tutu's Book of Forgiving)
...plus Spirituality in Mental Health North East (www.simhne.co.uk), and the project on Spirituality and Health at Durham University.

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