the way we hear words



I drove past a church building the other day,
and, imagined, as I sometimes try and do,
possible responses of those I might imagine as average passers-by,
to noticing the same church I was.
And I had the thought, honestly,
“What an odd thing for people to still do.”

As part of my staff report at our recent business meeting,
I reiterated the truth (and the challenge)
that polls consistently identify the single most important factor
for people visiting a church as a church member’s invitation.
I also noted that in a recent conversation,
we wondered if we need to re-think—re-word—re-frame
the whole inviting-people-to-church thing.
Because there are certain, almost inevitable, typically negative
connotations most people have with such an invitation.

And so I wondered if maybe we need
to preface our invitations with a clarification—
“I want to make it absolutely clear,
I’m not worried about the destination of your eternal soul when you die.
Nor am I the least bit interested in judging or condemning you—
using you to make me feel better.
I’m not after your repentance or your conversion,
and I really don’t want you to experience
any kind of exclusive, self-righteous, dogmatic absolutism.
And I can just about guarantee you,
the only way you’d hear any such stuff at my church
would be in its rejection as theologically inadequate!

And if, right now, there are any other
immediate gut-level responses you have
to being invited to a Baptist church that I can dispel,
I would love to!

Now, I am worried about the soul of life
as lived by all too many in our culture.
I am deeply interested in a more ongoing,
critical assessment of our culture.
I am after a greater appreciation of and desire for
nuance and depth and multivalent truth in story,
and I do want you to experience what I value in community—
what I experience as life-sustaining—
grace and joy enhancing.”

I also do happen to believe that nuance and depth
and truth and story all have to do with someone’s eternal soul (and mine)—
and the undermining of the reality of hell,
but that’s not necessarily anything to get into at that point!

Might such an initial clarification be helpful?
Or maybe we’ve reached a point where we need new terms altogether.
We’ve talked about whether the word “baptist” can be redeemed.
We’re of varying opinions.
What if it’s a bigger conversation?
What about the word “church”—
the word “worship”—
the word “Bible”?—

I confess, I don’t know.
All so important to me
and yet so completely misidentified (I believe)—
so utterly misunderstood
in popular understanding
as to be, to my mind, virtually unintelligible.

So to be clear,
if we weren’t going to use any of our taken-for-granted language,
what is it we’re inviting people to?
What is it, specifically,
we find in our experience of church/worship/Bible/God
that’s significantly relevant?

Well, there’s that experience of intergenerational community and fellowship
that’s exceedingly rare in our culture.
There is a shared commitment to priorities,
which in and of itself, might not be all that rare,
but this is commitment—a shared commitment to priorities
for which our culture tends not to advocate.
There is an appreciation of the gifts the least of these offer us—
of the opportunity we have to be better stewards of creation.
There is an openness to and a celebration of
all people created in the image of God
and an openness to and celebration of
the incredible diversity of people created in the image of God.
There is a sense of responsibility for needed change
in ourselves and in our world—
and some sense that the change does’t begin by making others change,
but in choosing to change ourselves.
There’s a thoughtful, reflective dimensions to life and thought—
a playful humility to the ever recognition of more—
more than we know—
more than we understand.
There is an emphasis
on story-shaped identity,
and community shaped values and traditions,
and on the importance of ritual in the midst of the day-to-day.
Might naming some of this be helpful?
Again, maybe.

Coming at it from another angle,
what is it that people these days value being invited to—
would want to be a part of—
that would still have integrity for us?

Many of us understand and appreciate the work of recovery.
So come to one of our TA, RA, CGA, BA, SRA, WA meetings—
Theologians Anonymous,
Religiously Anonymous,
Church-goers Anonymous,
Baptists Anonymous,
Scripture Readers Anonymous,
Worshippers Anonymous.

Art is valued more than worship.
Join us in our weekly production of the
theater of the holy … and the absurd.
We gather to depict the absurd amidst which we live
and to stage the naming of truth together—
to remind each other that it does exist!

Of course there’s the ancient tradition of storytelling—
the almost universal appreciation of storytellers.
Come reinvest in story—
gathering to listen to stories—
to learn the telling of stories,
and to practice the living of stories.

Our culture appreciates entertainment,
and that’s nothing to dismiss out of hand.
Because entertainment doesn’t have to be
shallow, meaningless, immediately-gratifying
(or with an hour or so, at most, of delayed gratification).
There is something entertaining about great story,
and we have the opportunity to creatively slip in
something important/relevant/meaningful.
Come be entertained with story and music.

Our culture (generally one of conformity)
values stories of the rebel (ironically).
Join the resistance!
Weekly meetings
for reports, updates, and assignments
for the strategic undermining of the status quo.

Oh, or there is the sporting event—
perhaps the most popular and common Sunday liturgy in our culture.
Well, I can’t imagine a more profound sport:
the underdog taking on the dominant power of the day
in an ongoing series
in which the winning and the losing truly matter—
in a game of confrontation
and of strategy
with the highest of stakes.
Who, in truth, head to head,
has the best story?

Ultimately, I don’t care about the words.
I believe there’s a truth beyond them.
But penultimately,
it’s words we’ve got.
And it matters which ones we use.
It matters how they’re heard.
It matters when they get in the way
of what we want them to mean.

So, we need to figure out
how to otherwise contextualize the ones we have,
or we need to come up with new ones entirely.

Because God’s word is still to be made flesh,
and words that aren’t heard—
won’t be heard—
can’t be made flesh.

And we need to be careful
that we haven’t made our words
more important than the truth beyond them.


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