I have a question for you: How recently have you attended a Muslim mosque? When was the last time you worshiped in a Jewish synagogue? How long since you slipped into the back row of a Buddhist service? Unless you’re a member of one of those faith groups it has probably been quite a while.
A follow-up question: If you did attend, what time of day did you plan to arrive? Would you leave your shoes at the door? Would you feel comfortable to participate? Would you know when to sit, stand, kneel?
Different kind of question: Have you noticed – as I have – that folks don’t sing with as much gusto in church as they did a few years ago?
Actually, all three of my questions are related. There was a time when America when to church. Every week. Three quarters of the population got to service pretty regularly when I started in ministry a few decades back. Now it’s about 1-in-10. Those songs you and I grew up singing, many of our neighbors have never heard. Great hymns that can send hot tears cascading down our cheeks don’t even move their needle.
Then someone rises and urges, “This morning let us ponder Paul’s powerful letter to the church in Ephesus…” Somehow it may not generate much interest among our guests until someone explains who “Paul” is, why is he writing a letter to a church, and how can I read what he wrote when the word “Ephesus” isn’t even in the list of books of the Bible in the pew rack.
A 19th century author whom I read a lot said, “We should allow the needs of the people to determine how we speak to them.” That makes a lot of sense to me; if we send a missionary to China the first thing we do is give them six months to learn the language so they can communicate effectively with the folks they’ve been sent to reach.
Which brings me to the issue of assumptions. Our generation cannot do church as effectively as we should while still using last century’s assumptions. If we wish for a guest to be comfortable attending church with us, we must not assume they already speak churchese, agree that the Bible is trustworthy or even that Jesus is who He claims to be. Our culture is biblically illiterate and for the gospel to be transformational it must also be understandable.
Be patient with me here, but is it my conviction that we are not presenting our most persuasive approach to our guests – or our young adults – if we read to them, or pray for them, in King James English. The early church spoke to its generation in what linguists call, “marketplace Greek.” Those who heard the Apostle Peter preach didn’t always agree, but you never hear one of them say, “I didn’t get it.” So, church leader, I urge you to challenge your assumptions.
By Don Jacobsen