The Language of the Church

My wife and I attended the Alt7 conference last week, which is intended for ministers under the age of 40.  It turns out that there aren’t many of us (7% to be exact, lending Alt7 its name), which is both motivating and a bit frightening.  In the statistics alone, it would seem that church leadership is disproportionately weighted toward an older generation, and  the “future” of the church is a small minority.  Think about that for a moment.

When I went into ministry, I essentially learned the language of the church as I knew it.  The language I learned was traditional.  It’s the language that our worship services have been speaking for centuries.  Call to Worship.  Call to Confession.  Scripture Readings.  Sermon.  Prayer of the People.  Offertory.  Benediction.  All of these “pieces” of a worship service occurred at a certain time, and each had a certain “sound” or “feel” to them.  They sounded like people expected them to sound.  They felt like people expected them to feel.  They were traditional, comfortable, and non-threatening.  No surprises.  The language of the church has no word for “surprise”!

But what happens when the languages of church and culture begin to diverge?  What is the church to do when the culture around it and within it begins to speak a new language?  Particularly in our digital, information-driven age the divergence can become very large, very quickly.  I’m reminded of the popular video found on youtube entitled Did You Know?:

I think most church leaders today would admit that the church generally chooses to remain static instead of adapting to a changing culture.  The oft repeated adage is that any organization must choose between deep painful change or slow painful death.  I wonder…  which has the church chosen?  My fear is that we have, in our adherence to tradition, chosen slow painful death as the culture around us changes.  Furthermore, I fear that our dying is occurring so slowly that we mistake it for living.

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The reality is this: there exists in our culture an entire generation of young people for whom the primary mode of communication is electronic.  They communicate with their friends and colleagues through text messages, instant messages, myspace, twitter, and facebook.  These are languages that the church has largely ignored.  Granted, there are exceptions, but generally speaking, most mainline churches are failing to utilize all of the technology at their disposal when it comes to sharing the message and experience of Jesus.  Should the church continue this failure, it will be left speaking a language that very few people speak.

I’ve become completely convinced that a new church needs to emerge.  While I’ve never before considered myself a member of the emerging church movement, it’s now clear to me that the way we do communication, ministry, and especially worship in our mainline churches must shift.  This isn’t to say that we throw everything traditional out the window.  Tradition is of great value to the church as long as it exists as a conversation between where we have been and where we are.  There is room in our religious traditions for new elements, new understandings of how God is at work in the church and world.  The shift that must occur is not a radical overhaul of religious tradition, but rather a recasting of it that incorporates new language.

This is to say that the church must address the changing needs of our culture by becoming bilingual.  Learning a new language can be very difficult, and it takes a large amount of time.  However, speaking the language of an electronic culture now changing at increasing speed might just be the very best way we can share the message of Jesus with a world in need.  After all, at Pentecost (Acts 2) God did give birth to the church in an explosive, all-out fit of new language.

And if God did it once, maybe God can do it again.

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