“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter – it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” (Mark Twain)
As Christendom continues to fade away, God’s people in the US are beginning to awaken to the new normal of the 21st century. The US has shifted spiritually. The former “world” religions are now part of the fabric of American culture while simultaneously the US is becoming demographically diverse. While the overall population continues to rise, most mainline congregations are experiencing slow and sustained decline. What are we to do as United Methodist Christians?
In my next three blog posts, I will propose three critical shifts to help congregations (re)engage their local communities with the gospel. My proposals find their roots in the preaching and kingdom activity of Jesus in the Gospels and also in the words and actions of John Wesley.
To recapture the apostolic mission of the NT, it is crucial to begin with Jesus. Jesus began his earthly ministry by announcing the arrival of the kingdom of God (Matt 4:17; Mark 1:13–15; cf. Luke 4:16–20). The core of Jesus’s message was that God’s long-awaited age of salvation had arrived. In response, Jesus called his listeners to ongoing repentance in light of the kingdom’s arrival. Repentance in Matt 4:17 refers to a (re)aligning of one’s movements, intentions, and actions in light of God’s kingdom. Jesus called religious insiders to realign with the coming of the kingdom while simultaneously inviting religious outsiders to align with the kingdom.
Jesus’s words serve as a guide for how we are to respond to the gospel. As we engage Jesus’ teaching, preaching, and actions, we respond to Jesus’s modeling and announcement of the kingdom by (re)aligning ourselves with it. These ongoing shifts are vital as we seek to live faithfully in the world.
The initial response to Jesus’s proclamation of the kingdom was the calling of the first disciples (4:18–22) and the creation of a new community. As we ponder Jesus’s actions, we will find the three shifts that we need to make in our 21st century contexts.
Shift #1 From Preaching to the Choir to Communicating with Cultural Clarity
Jesus calls his disciples by using language familiar to them. He says, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people” (4:19). When Jesus spoke these words, he took hold of something familiar to his new disciples. They were fishermen. Jesus was calling them to a mission. Instead of saying, “I’m calling you to announce the good news through mission and evangelism,” Jesus chose the familiar. This is a critical but overlooked part of this story. Jesus helped his fishermen to understand their new calling by speaking on their turf rather than expecting them to gain a new vocabulary from the beginning.
Let me illustrate this why this is critical. I can remember singing a song about Jesus’s calling of his disciples as a young child. Its lyrics went “I will make you fishers of men, fishers of men, fishers of men. I will make you fishers of men, if you follow me.” It was a fun song to sing, but there was a problem. I grew up in an urban context and I had never fished. Therefore, I had no clue of the meaning of the song. In fact, I remember my Sunday school teacher having to explain to us what fishing involved and then trying to explain how this was a metaphor for us telling others about Jesus. It didn’t make sense to us.
We must begin to think about the words that we use to communicate the gospel. Who is our audience? Are we choosing the right words or are we simply doing the easy thing and using words that we understand without reflecting on if they are clear to those with whom we share the gospel.
In the introduction to his Sermons, John Wesley speaks directly to this issue:
I design plain truth for plain people: Therefore, of set purpose, I abstain from all nice and philosophical speculations; from all perplexed and intricate reasonings; and, as far as possible, from even the show of learning, unless in sometimes citing the original Scripture. I labour to avoid all words which are not easy to be understood, all which are not used in common life; and, in particular, those kinds of technical terms that so frequently occur in Bodies of Divinity; those modes of speaking which men of reading are intimately acquainted with, but which to common people are an unknown tongue. Yet I am not assured, that I do not sometimes slide into them unawares: It is so extremely natural to imagine, that a word which is familiar to ourselves is so to all the world.
Make sure that the words you’re using actually communicate the meaning that you think you are sharing. As we (re)engage a culture that lacks Christian memory or in many cases does not even come from a Christian background, we must adopt and deploy new language as we seek to introduce the gospel anew in our world. I am not arguing for the elimination of traditional Christian vocabulary. The key is making sure that we lead with words and phrases that connect with our audiences before we introduce words and phrases that are completely foreign to them.
Here are some questions that may help you to assess your own language as well as the language used in the public services of your community of faith:
What words or concepts do I expect my audience to understand as a precondition for hearing the Gospel from me?
What do we expect a non-Christ follower to become before they can understand our presentation of the Gospel at our community of faith?
As we seek to advance Jesus’s kingdom in our day, let us commit ourselves to communicating with cultural clarity.