Beyond Church Chat

church_pews_Small“Here’s the church and here’s the steeple, open the doors and see all the people.” Remember that preschool fingerplay? If it had cute hand motions to go with it, we might add an extra verse: “Here is the church, and here are the pews, and here are the holy words that we use.”

Along with the offering plates and the organ, certain vocabulary words are considered property of the church, a kind of ecclesiastical language used only inside church walls. The truths behind such theological terms need to be heard and understood by the world, but church words often communicate like a foreign language. Even those of us who understand church talk, or who may claim it as our native tongue, need to increase our language skills if we want to communicate the message of faith. Our youth can become so familiar with terms such as “lost” and “saved” that they only apply them to “them” and “us.” They may stop seeing that they too should identify with the Prodigal. When a life-giving concept like “grace” becomes simply a Bible study answer said in monotone, the words and concepts lose their power to affect us.

Have you ever been in a discussion in which someone gave a memorized answer that did not seem real? For some, being religious means using certain words or giving memorized answers. However, Jesus presented truths using everyday language. Pearls, oil lamps, and figs paint pictures of what the Kingdom is like.

How can you as a teacher move beyond church chat? How can you help those in your class or group discuss theology using language that communicates in ways they understand, with or without a church background? Responding to and debriefing activities and interacting with the biblical text encourage people to express thoughts and feelings about religious truths in their own words. As you study a particular passage or story, search the words for new pictures or insights you may have missed before. You may want to use different translations of scripture to help suggest new meanings. This process can be especially important with you.

One of the more important tasks you have in leading a group is to equip them to explore their faith in ways that are real to them. Paying attention to the language we use in doing this is one practical way we help faith become more real. When they fall back on clichés or Bible study answers that you feel they may not understand or accept, explore these options. Ask questions about what certain terms mean. Make a rule that we do not define a church word by using another church word. Work on a definition of a term that will truly communicate to those who are Christians and those who are not. Ask youth to define words such as “grace” or “sin” by describing how it feels to experience these. Take time to describe what grace or sin looks like. Talk about familiar movie scenes that might illustrate a particular concept. Listen to musical lyrics that address ideas that are theological. For instance, in Paul Simon’s song “Graceland,” the artist describes how it feels to be lost and alludes to what grace may mean. Such ideas might provide a springboard for discussion.

Encourage your group members to be sensitive to how we communicate our faith. Ask them to question terms they do not understand. You might interview those outside the church about words or terms that do not make sense to them. Learning to say what we believe in a language that communicates is a high calling. In searching for new ways to speak of our faith, we may hear God speak to us in new ways as well.

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