I admit it: I’m a life-long church attendee. There, I said it. It feels better to get that off my chest. One of my greatest blessings in life is that I married someone who was NOT a life-long church attendee. This is a wonderful asset because often times I, like so many others in the church, get caught up using my church lingo and I simply assume everyone knows what I’m talking about. My wife is gracious enough to remind me that not everyone has such a working knowledge of “churchy terms.”
This makes me wonder: how guilty are we all in the Church for doing this? How often do we fail to remember that not everyone who might visit our churches will understand what we’re doing in the context of worship? How often do we use catch phrases and sound bytes to describe the Christian faith to other people? How often do we resort to using our own “churchy terms” as a means of trying to explain very large and complex issues of life?
There are a lot of rhetorical terms we use in the our churches and faith circles that I think we should really consider what they mean sometimes. Sure, we can talk about trials and tribulations in poetic terms by claiming that “we all bear our own crosses.” Besides the fact that such an analogy misses the point of Jesus’ words altogether, what does that even mean? We love talking about things like “transformation” in our preaching and teaching. But what does that even look like? How about being “Christlike” or “a disciple?” My point is not to argue that we shouldn’t use these terms. I would hope we would use them often. But using these terms simply as rhetorical devices in hopes of stirring people’s emotions or in offering simplistic answers is, in the end, a dependence on very empty words.
There’s a poignant scene in an episode of the show The West Wing. The President is preparing to debate a challenger who has built a reputation on 12-word responses. The episode shows the President’s aides racking their brains to find their own 12-word response that he could use during the debate. As the debate unfolds, there is a moment where the President’s challenger uses a great sound byte in reference to tax reform-much to the chagrin of the President’s staffers who could never come up with one of their own. After a moment of reflection, the President begins to tell the truth about the emptiness of sound-byte thinking. “What are the next 12 words? Your taxes are too high? So are mine. Tell me what the next 12 words are. How would you fix it?”
“Saved by grace through faith”-how does that work? “Making disciples for a Christlike world”-how? What exactly does a disciple look like? What does a Christlike world look like? “Following Jesus”-what does that mean? How does it look to follow Jesus? You see, this is the difference between observance and practice. Faith is not faith if it’s something we merely observe and agree with. We have to press that faith and all of the cliches that come with it. Faith must, over time, transform us into something different than we were before we encountered it. Terms like forgiveness, love, sacrifice, justice, and hospitality mean nothing unless we demand nothing less than to experience them in practice. I guess you could say that maybe those of us in the Church should worry a little less about “talking the talk,” and worry a little more about how we actually equip one another to “walk the walk.”