During church services on Sunday mornings I occasionally imagine what one of my non-believer friends would think were he sitting next to me. How would he react to the worship music, the presentation style of the pastor, the substance of the sermon or the attitudes and actions of those around him? I consider how his experience of church would impact his impression of Christianity in general. To be honest, I often find it difficult to imagine him staying for the duration of the service. So much of what happens in an American church would strike him as inscrutably alien and, frankly, silly. That’s not a criticism of churches, but a genuine worry nonetheless.
I worry whether a good many of my friends would reject church for trivial reasons, reasons they feel are relevant and persuasive despite my objections. I suspect that they would demur on aesthetic grounds, to the music, perhaps, or to the church’s strange adornment. Most of all, I worry that they would find troubling the particular manner in which Christians occasionally speak. While their skepticism of church and Christianity would be ill founded, I can’t deny that at least some of my well-educated and otherwise open-minded friends would avoid church for the same reason they avoid other people or people groups: because of certain oddities in their dialect.
Let me give you an example. We’ve all heard or perhaps even used the term “it’s a God thing”; it’s ubiquitous in some evangelical circles. I must admit that I cringe at hearing it, not because I doubt the intentions of the person speaking or because I doubt whether God actually presided over the issue in question in all of his omnipotent sovereignty, but because I cannot help but hear the phrase as my non-Christian friends hear it. To them – and perhaps to me, as well – the term reduces what is purportedly a matter of tremendous cosmic significance to a benign colloquialism. Strictly speaking, very little in this universe isn’t
a “God thing” – the question of the nature of evil notwithstanding – and so it’s something of a platitude. It’s also a phrase completely at odds with secular cultural conventions, which is to say it’s not cool. In fact, it’s painfully uncool and I suspect most of us know it. It invites ridicule – rightly or wrongly – and to what end? “To praise God,” you might answer, “to give Him the credit He deserves.” Indeed, but in the absence of any narrow biblical prescriptions concerning how to praise Him, ought we not find less irksome methods of praise when in the presence of non-Christians? Do the negligible benefits of employing dubious theological platitudes warrant compromising our witness as Christians?
To the example above add a list of other phrases, such as “God showed up” and “on fire for Christ,” both of which are perfectly valid expressions of profound encounters with God, but perhaps not the best means of conveying those experiences outside of an exclusively Christian context. Perhaps we ought to monitor and modulate our speech around non-believers who we know will find those types of utterances offputting.
Some of you will no doubt feel I’ve overstated the matter – perhaps so. I am certainly not suggesting that we ought to pander to the culture and refrain from saying anything deemed “uncool”. The central claim of Christianity, Christ and his atoning death and resurrection, is widely regarded as uncool and yet we are theologically committed and eager to announce its truth to the world. I merely mean to stress the impact that theologically trivial issues such as our voluntary habits of speech make upon non-believers, habits we aren’t biblically obligated to observe and which may color the cultural reception of our message. What may edify among the body of believers might harden the hearts of those who need to hear our message most.
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