Guest Post by the Lee Karl Palo
What would it be like to walk into a religious ceremony of a group you knew nothing about? Of course, there would be plenty of things you wouldn’t understand. Many of the words you hear would be used in ways you might not be familiar with. Other words would be peculiar to that religious group.
I remember a conversation I had about my Christian faith with a new friend. I no longer recall the specific details of what I was talking about, but what was memorable was a comment he made. He said, “When you use the word ‘church’ you aren’t always talking about a building are you?”
In most churches, there is a strong value placed on making converts. Additionally, the society we are a part of is becoming less and less familiar with the Christian faith. This means that many of the internal words we would naturally choose to express what being a Christian is make less and less sense to those on the outside.
As a result, church growth today consists largely of poaching members from other churches. They are the ones who already understand, in some sense, what goes on in a Christian worship service.
Is this what we want evangelism to consist of? Stealing people from the church down the street with our children and youth programs?
Would it not be valuable to take the time to examine how our church services appear to the unchurched? How much “Christianese” would a person have to be familiar with in order to understand the songs we sing? Does the word “blood” appear so often that it could make an outsider wonder if they have stumbled upon a group of vampires? Does the language we use to describe communion remind outsiders of zombie films—“eat the flesh and drink the blood?”
Certainly some churches have taken the time to consider these questions and make efforts to have services that are more accessible to outsiders. But is that the only problem Christian churches have?
What if the words, even when properly understood by those outside the faith, have no credibility?
It isn’t hard to understand how spiritual realms like Heaven and Hell were conceivable in the superstitious world of the distant past. But in the scientifically minded world of today they seem pretty far-fetched to those outside of the faith. Indeed, much of tract-type evangelism resides in persuading people that Hell is real enough to be a place that should scare them into becoming Christian. People don’t like to be scared into believing things that would otherwise sound ridiculous.
Is the essence of Christianity really about insuring that people won’t have a horrendous afterlife? There are Bible scholars and theologians today who are challenging that notion.
So just what is the message of Christianity? What is it really all about? If you are a Christian with an answer to that question for yourself, do you think others in your church could also answer it? If so, would any of you be able to communicate that to someone outside the faith?
It is time for some deep soul-searching. How can churches be made friendlier and more comprehensible to outsiders? What is the message we are “selling,” and how can it be made intelligible to the uninitiated? There are no one-size-fits-all answers to these questions, but is well past time that Christians started asking them. I would hope that people could come to church and feel like their spiritual stirrings might just make sense in Christianity.
And with a little luck, maybe Christians can avoid being mistaken for zombies and vampires.
Photo Credit: “110. Jesus H. Christ” by Flickr user Mike Peterson.