Groups that have been together for a while develop their own way of communicating — an insider language, a kind of fraternal dialect. They understand each other, but outsiders get the feeling they’re missing something. This is usually not intentional, but it leaves those who don’t know the language feeling a little lost.
This week, as I was leaving to meet someone at a place I’d never been before, I discovered my GPS has stopped working. I quickly printed up directions from Google Maps, read through them a couple of times to commit the route to memory, then set off. The directions took me by back roads, and I did fine until I was about 25 miles from my destination.
I came to a “T” in the road and had to turn one way or the other. The directions indicated the next turn would be to the left, but the road name differed from the one Google supplied. One was a state route number and the other was a name. I turned left anyway, but soon came to another intersection where the road names again differed.
I suspect that locals used the road name while outsiders used the route number. I was definitely an outsider and was feeling a little lost. After the next turn, I gave up on Google and relied on my own sense of direction to find the way.
I think something similar happens in the church. People on the inside use terms that make sense to them, but outsiders feel like they’re missing something. And they usually are.
The church has its own patois, understood by insiders, but confusing to those who are new. For example, the pastor says: “We just need to love on the immigrants who’ve come to our community.” Church regulars may understand the pastor wants them to show concern for immigrants by their words and actions, but if any of those immigrants happened to be present, they might worry that being “loved on” was neither safe nor proper.
Some of the theological terms we use in church convey nothing substantive to newcomers. When the pastor talks about “sanctification” or “the gospel,” nothing at all comes to mind. It’s even worse when commonly used words take on idiosyncratic meanings when combined. For example, outsiders understand both the word “love” and the word “offering,” but the announcement that there will be a “love offering” at the conclusion of the service may leave them baffled. Or what about the outsider who hears someone say, “God spoke to me this week.” He wonders just what God’s voice sounds like — is it a James Earl Jones bass or does it have a Patrick Stewart accent?
When church members use terms like these without explanation, they leave outsiders feeling, well … outside, out of place. But there are problems for insiders too. We assume we know what a term means because we hear it often and even use it ourselves, but if we cannot explain it in a way that someone unfamiliar with the Christian faith could understand, our own grasp of the concept is suspect.
Take the term “salvation.” It is used by churches around the world and repeated weekly by tens of millions in the Nicene Creed. But if your sailboat capsized and you washed ashore on North Sentinel Island in the Bay of Bengal, and its inhabitants did not immediately kill you, as they have done in the past, how would you explain salvation to them?
Church members should be able to translate biblical terms and churchy dialect into language outsiders understand. Yet there is an even higher level of communication possible, one that transcends words: Love. Love can communicate to people what even our most precise words fail to make clear.
Felix Mendelsohn wrote a series of short piano pieces he titled, “Songs Without Words.” When a friend offered to write lyrics, Mendelsohn demurred. He thought that words would not clarify the meaning of his music but obscure it.
Sometimes our words — theological terms and churchy dialect — do the same thing. They obscure what God has communicated. When words fail, piling on more words will not help. What is then needed is love.
— Shayne Looper is the pastor of Lockwood Community Church in Branch County, Michigan. Read more at shaynelooper.com.