Is Christianity Confusing? Faith Language for the 21st Century
It’s a cool summer night on the Third Street Promenade, a commercial pedestrian mall spanning three blocks in Santa Monica, California. The night positively glows with 21st century beach culture, from barefoot surfers to the glamorous. Street performers often gather here, usually musicians, and other artistic performers. On this particular night, there is a grey-haired gentleman dressed in an antiquated suit, and he is preaching. His voice booms, and he does not look at the crowd as he reads from his Bible; a passage vaguely familiar to me, from the Old Testament. It is about God’s judgment on Israel, and the nation is portrayed as an unfaithful woman and other metaphors abound. This language makes immediate sense to me since I’ve heard it before in church. Yet, I find myself cringing as I walk by this man. He stops reading and begins preaching about the need to repent of our sins and join God in establishing His Kingdom.
As I continue on and the man’s words fade away, I reflect on this experience. Everything he said is truth. Yet, why do I feel embarrassed in hearing this man preach these words in a public place? Is it his manner? The way he seemed impersonal and out of place? No, my real issue comes down to the language itself. I cringe because I imagine what I would think if I heard this man without having any church background: Christians are crazy and they talk in a language that I can’t understand. Ideas like the ‘Kingdom of God’ and ‘Israel as an Unfaithful Wife’ seem a million miles away from our communication in an increasingly secularized and postmodern society that stresses pop culture, democracy, and keeping faith internal.
Indeed, I’ve recently noticed that fewer and fewer people I come across are familiar with basic biblical principles, for better or for worse, as compared to my childhood. I don’t expect everyone to be an expert about scripture and church culture. However, it surprises me to observe that many of my peers (20s and 30s) haven’t even a cursory knowledge of Biblical stories, or theological concepts. Most non-Christian people I encounter have virtually zero understanding of the core of what Christians believe, despite avid media coverage of Christian groups. This seems different from my parents’ and grandparents’ generation, who seem to at least know about Biblical principles, even if they don’t practice them.
Perhaps there is something to my observation. Some recent studies show that anywhere from 66% to 81% of young people will leave the church after high school, and although many polls report that 40% of Americans as churchgoers, recent scrutiny in polling techniques may put the true figure closer to 30%, and as low as 20% .
How, then do we represent Christ in a culture that has less ‘head’ knowledge about Christianity than our parents’ generation? The temptation is to see this as a tragedy. In fact, this as an opportunity to tell the Biblical story better than it’s ever been told before. It’s clear that people of faith are still seeking to introduce people to Christ, and the fact that we might be the first ones to introduce our friends to these Biblical themes ups the stakes. Hollywood has taught us that good story telling is the best way to get someone’s attention. We are telling an important story, and we are responsible for getting it right. Paul ‘got it right’ in Athens by using the Greek alter “To an unknown god” as a connection to the story of Jesus, instead of relying on the traditional Jewish rhetoric (Acts 17:23). This ‘getting it right’ requires more than just reciting the same story we’ve heard a thousand times. It requires knowing a story inside and out and telling it creatively, in a way that people understand now. ‘Getting it right’ requires going deeper than the usual church language. Christians must ask themselves if the language they are using to tell the story is making sense to the listener, and making an impact. Above all, we must convey how these stories have changed us. So – how have these stories changed us – as individuals and as the Church? Our reflection on this is the starting point of effective evangelism in 21st Century.
So what about my brother in Christ reading Isaiah to strollers in his church suit? Is he wrong? In fact, I’m sure he has the best intentions, and he is out there speaking the truth. The worst I can say about him is that his presentation is lazy, and who does not act lazy sometimes? Of course, now is the time to motivate each other. In fact, being attentive to a culture with less knowledge of the Bible and church culture challenges Christians in portraying Christ in fresh ways; those that do not use the traditional churchy language as a crutch, but instead cause us to go deeper into the real value that the gospel has for our lives.
Gabriela Worrel writes on topics of faith, nature, culture, and urban planning issues. She lives in Los Angeles and frequently escapes city life by going to the wilderness. Read more at Amen Food Blogs and Industrial Hangover.
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