I urge everyone who cares about these things to read these two posts from bls at The Topmost Apple on how the church is dealing (or not) with our current “post-Christendom” situation. She makes two main points: first, the church often acts like it has nothing very interesting to communicate, and, second, what it does communicate is too often encased in impenetrable religious jargon that is meaningless to a lot of people. She thinks that the gospel carries the explosive truth about the human situation, but the churches are afraid, unwilling, or unable to offer that to people:
I think the Gospels – and Paul – are making some really convincing claims about the facts of the world and the human condition – and that A.A. has (re-?)discovered some of these things almost by accident. I think Luther was really onto something in his parsing of “Law” and “Gospel”; it has taken me a couple of years to come to understand more about this-but it’s real. It’s true-and it’s actually backed up by quite a lot of real-world evidence. This kind of thinking really does change your point of view – and it’s philosophy as much as religion, really. It’s got legs.
We need to be able to say these things to people who do not know our language already – and we need to offer people who do know the language a way for the faith to remain vital and alive – to continue to offer sustenance and excitement – in and for them, too. We need to make a case. “Mystery” and “mystification” are two completely different things; we really can retain the former and eliminate the latter, I believe. It’s clear to me from years of discussions about these things that many people are interested in religion – but just can’t get with some of its manifestations (mentioned above). And of course, we have the problem of some of the …. erm ….. more extravagant claims of the Christian faith (sometimes called “believing six impossible things before breakfast”). So I do not believe we can count anymore, my friends, on Christianity being “believed in” as it’s been “believed in” in the past. We are going to have to assume that many (most?) people will not be convinced about these “impossible things” much anymore – and we’re going to have to depend far more on Christianity’s fascinating unveiling of counterintuitive ideas and mystical insights.
In a related vein, Ben Myers at Faith and Theology writes on the limitations of preaching from the lectionary:
There’s a lot to be said for the use of a lectionary cycle. But the lectionary tends to presuppose, rather than to foster, a broad understanding of the biblical story. Lectionaries were designed for use in societies that were already implicitly Christian – societies in which the rhythms of the liturgical year, and the broad sweep of the biblical narrative, could be more or less taken for granted. In the Revised Common Lectionary (which my own church follows), just look at the theological subtlety with which the OT and NT readings are often connected: a subtlety that is quite lost on anybody without a good working knowledge of scripture and liturgical tradition. And preachers only exacerbate the problem when they take these subtle liturgico-theological connections as the theme of their proclamation, instead of preaching from the texts themselves. (Preachers, please note: the content of your proclamation is not the liturgical calendar, but the Word of God!)
I think most churches–primarily in the U.S. and European context–have still not come to grips with the fact that a large number of people no longer consider religion particularly important or interesting. Not that they necessarily reject it passionately like the new atheists; they just don’t see why they should be much concerned about it at all. Moreover, they don’t necessarily have the background familiarity with the Bible, the church, and Christian claims that might once have been taken for granted. Those of us who take a special interest in theology and religion, either as professionals or amateurs, tend to become embedded in the language, history, and arcana of the church. As a result, we lose sight of what all this must look like to someone on the outside. If we believe that the gospel offers people something decisive and meaningful for their lives that they can’t get (or maybe more modestly aren’t getting) elsewhere, we have to find ways to communicate it. In a way, this is just a recapitulation of the insight of theologians like Paul Tillich and Dietrich Bonhoeffer: we have cordoned off matters of faith to a special “religious” sphere; but if the gospel is true, its truth is for our “secular,” ordinary, quotidian lives.
3 thoughts on “Communicating the gospel after Christendom”
I get what bls is saying. It’s a problem that has been grappling with. We have access to font of life itself, but every day we see thirsty people pass it by because they don’t recognize it. I am heavily involved in my parish’s attempt at a college ministry. How do I communicate this life-giving gospel to my fellow students who know little or nothing about it? I wish I knew.
When my mother was dying with cancer I tried to talk to her about Jesus because I had run out of other ways to help, but it didn’t go well – she accused me of trying to convert her. I know there are others who could benefit from what Christianity has to offer, but I think maybe the best way to convince them there’s something worth having is to be good examples – show by how we live what difference it makes, because otherwise it’s just words. That’s what turned me from an athesit to someone willing to listen – the example of how it worked in the life of somone I knew. I wasn’t a good example myself for my mom, though.
I’m very sorry to hear about your mom. I agree that in some (most?) circumstances, being a good example is the best witness we have.