In an article written by Jonathan Merritt for The New York Times, he says if the Christian Church wishes to thrive in the post-Christian age, then we will need to learn all over again how to talk about God and Faith. Because while 70% of Americans still identify as “Christian”, you wouldn’t know it from listening to them.
Merritt quotes Thornton Wilder who, during the Great Depression, said, The revival in religion will be a rhetorical problem--new persuasive words for defaced or degraded ones.” Wilder knew that during times of rapid social change, God-talk is often difficult to muster.
So Merritt undertook a project. He enlisted the Barna Group to conduct a survey of 1000 adults. More than 75% of those adults said they do not have spiritual conversations very often. 20% of them admitted they had not had a spiritual conversation at all in the last year. Only 7% said they spoke of spiritual matters on a regular basis.
But this was the real shocker: Practicing Christians who attended church regularly didn’t fare much better--only 13% of them had a spiritual conversation once a week.
For those of us who practice our faith regularly and truly try to take our spiritual growth seriously, these kinds of trends are confounding. If you think back through the history of the church you can make a case that our growth as a religion was the result of spiritual speech and acts of mercy. Jesus was a “rabbi”--a teacher--who preached and taught constantly. The Apostle Paul spent his adult life traveling from one town to the next telling the story of the Risen Jesus. And every generation since has depended on the spoken Word as the primary vehicle for sharing the faith.
In more modern times, radio and television expanded our capacity to reach people, but it was still through the preached or taught Word that converts were made. And from the 1950s prolific preachers like Billy Graham who, like Paul, traveled from city to city to share the Word made a profound impact on the modern church.
As we consider the future of the church, we must confront the new reality that not everyone speaks “our language”. Words like salvation and redemption and faith now constitute a language barrier for many who have not been raised in the faith or who drifted away from it.
Try to imagine having a spiritual conversation with the stranger seated next to you for that three-hour flight. Imagine that person having no understanding of the tenets of Christianity. Could you engage that person in a genuine way? Do you have new words that might replace older ones?
And maybe part of our dilemma is the “misuse” or abuse of some of these great words--like the plastic-smiled evangelist who uses spiritual words as a way of getting more donations for a second jet, or the politician who uses spiritual words only when it benefits an election, or the street preacher who keeps using our language to peddle the fear of a fiery Hell. We risk defaulting our words to them because we’ve stopped talking about them in any other meaningful way.
So maybe for now I’ll offer one possible solution--learning how to tell your “story”. Paul was so effective because he had his own story of conversion to tell. Could you effectively share your own “faith story” with a stranger? Maybe not as dramatic a story as Paul’s, but one that is no less authentic.
We can’t lose our God-talk.