Language is at the center of culture. Certainly the most basic language groups identify with one another (i.e. English used in America). However, when it comes to affinity and community, our language has to become even more specific with an understanding of vernacular, dialects, and defined terms.
The church, a local gathering of baptized believers, can affectionately gather on more basic levels of language (there are Yankees in our church I love very much), however, we really cannot gather effectively in community if we do not share defined terms (gospel, church, mission and their derivatives). These terms actually define the nature of our relationships, so we must be clear and consistent in our definitions. Words are important.
I don’t intend for this to be useless or complex, though the latter could lead to the former. However, I do believe it’s important to understand language in our cultures because what we are communicating is of paramount importance.
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”
(Romans 1:16-17 ESV)
Communication in a Post-Christian Culture
Most churches established in the 20th Century and the first part of the 21st Century are generally located in regions in America I would label as post-Christian. Now, that’s a generalization, I know, but just to get the ball rolling indulge me. That is, from the mid-west eastward and (mostly) southward, the church has long been established and new works have begun again and again. Much of this region has Bible-belt loops running through it. These are regions that accept the local baptist church in their midst, even seeing it as a cultural and societal staple. They know the lingo of VBS, revival, gospel, Bible, salvation. They are not shocked to see Bible studies in local coffee shops or people praying publicly before meals. Even if there is “resistance” there’s at least a cordial “that’s good for them” kind of mentality toward Christians.
The difficulty of communication in post-Christian culture is re-defining (in a biblical sense) the terms that the culture as come quite accustomed to defining in general. For instance, “gospel” is a rich, biblical term that refers to the good news of God saving people through the redemptive work of Christ, sealing them by the Holy Spirit for eternal life. In general, post-Christian cultures would understand this to be the larger term for all things “evangelical” and most specifically a folksy reference to our “faith.” Of course, even “evangelical” and “faith” are not as distinctly understood as need be. A merely general understanding of the gospel can lead to a person being specifically unsaved.
The charge for those of us in post-Christian cultures is to be clear in our definitions and terms, consistently explaining them and their consequential actions (according to Scripture). The more we assume the people understand these “church” terms, the more our pews will be filled with unregenerate members. May the lost fill our pews, but they should not make it to our membership rolls. We should seek to make the gospel, and it’s covenant community, clearly understood and consistently lived.
Communication in a Pre-Christian Culture
I was recently in the least religious city in the country, Boulder, CO. It was helpful to have had a conversation with a pastor out “west” who described the western frontier as “pre-Christian” prior to my arrival in Boulder. Even though there are many church buildings in the central part of Boulder, the distinctiveness of Christian witness had long been swallowed up by the local culture. Eventually, the culture can be so overrun with secularism that it’s post-Christian elements become pre-Christian, as if there had been no history of Christian witness.
For the sake of communicating in these environments, it is important that we understand that, yes, our definitions are to be clear and consistent as they are in post-Christian cultures, but we also have to understand that the terms themselves have been unheard and absent. If they have been heard, they are so deeply buried in the secularism of the culture, that’s they are part of an ancient time when Christians roamed the land.
So, no assumptions of common language can be made, only a desire to introduce the clear, biblical term with clear and consistent biblical definition. This is particularly potent when combined with the consistent living out of these terms by the local gathering of the community of believers, the church.
Without a doubt, the overlap in both cultures is to clearly and consistently define terms. The only difference in pre-Christian cultures is to be intentional to introduce the terms to be defined.
What does this practically mean for all of us in local churches? We need to be sure we understand our own terms, our own definitions, and our own lifestyles. It is wildly confusing to share terms, with biblical definitions, that are devoid of biblical application. Our lives do not define terms by themselves, but they can adorn the gospel words so that the terms are RIGHTLY understood.
Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, dignity, and sound speech that cannot be condemned, so that an opponent may be put to shame, having nothing evil to say about us. Bondservants are to be submissive to their own masters in everything; they are to be well-pleasing, not argumentative, not pilfering, but showing all good faith, so that in everything they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior.
(Titus 2:7-10 ESV)
That said, we must never forsake words. We must use words, forming sentences, to communicate what the Scriptures says about God, about man, about Christ, and about responding to the gospel call. We need to not redefine terms as much as biblically clarify terms. We should work harder in sermon prep, Bible study prep, personal Bible study, and leadership vision casting to use terms that are biblical, biblically defined, and biblically described leading to the kind of transformation the Bible speaks.
And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.
(1 Corinthians 2:1-5 ESV)