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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Church Shorthand Terms

One thing I learned from teaching first through fourth graders in Sunday School is that many of the favorite words and phrases people like to say at church are shorthand for complicated concepts that may be quite difficult to explain.  These symbolic, metaphorical, or abstract terms often make little sense to children whose literal and concrete interpretation of language leads to misunderstandings or confusion.

This hit me most clearly in the month of each year when the curriculum turned toward an evangelistic emphasis, tailored toward the developmental stage of the children.  In the two year curriculum cycle, it is no surprise that Southern Baptists, with their conversionist tradition and evangelical leanings, made sure to include evangelistic teaching.  Because of the high level of educational expertise available in the Sunday School Board staff in those days of the 1980s, the literature for teaching was adapted to the developmental stages of the age cohorts being taught.  It was not designed for high pressure evangelizing.  It was supposed to lay a groundwork for children growing in their faith so that they can do what my dad often spoke of, "make a step toward Christ."  Such an approach reveals that Southern Baptist curriculum design included acknowledgement of both the "crisis" model of conversion and the developmental model of "growing into faith in Christ."

Using either model, our theological tradition expected Christian converts to be able to articulate some kind of experience of conversion.  Describing such an experience should employ certain preferred terms:  "accepting Christ as Savior," "asking Jesus into my heart," "getting saved," "giving my life to Jesus," "making a decision for Christ," "following Jesus," "professing faith in Christ," "confessing my faith," "getting converted," and "having a relationship with Christ." 

A few terms often heard but less preferred are "walking down the aisle,""loving Jesus," "getting baptized."  Baptists liked to talk about walking the aisle, but as a synecdoche it offers the concrete mind of children an inexact and incomplete description of what is valued in soteriological language.  Baptists like to talk about loving Jesus, but it is too general to satisfy their specific soteriological understanding.  While Baptists practice believer's baptism, they also carry on a centuries-old argument about the nature of baptism and Baptist rejection of sacramentalism (a heritage worth inquiring into at another time).  Thus, this synecdoche as a description of conversion challenges the particular identity Baptists want to mark out for themselves.

In all my efforts to explain soteriology to children, I found that many of these shorthand terms I was most in the habit of using did not provide much clarity of understanding on their terms.   I'll not discuss the issues with all of the terms and phrases listed above.  Let it suffice to say that some fail to communicate because of their abstraction:  accepting Christ, making a decision, professing faith, confessing, having a relationship, and getting converted.   Other terms, in their metaphorical specificity, caused difficulty with specific concrete images they call forth:  asking Jesus in your heart, giving my life, and getting saved.  Children who were familiar with the term "getting saved" might think of being in danger from drowning, from a mean person or monster, from a fire, from a storm, or some other danger.  Linked with discussion of Hell, it might draw the focus of the child to fear of fire and pain and away from the love of God in Christ. 

I concluded from many efforts at explanation that the best choice of terms was "following Jesus." First, it was a term with strong biblical precedent in the very words of Jesus.  Second, the concept of following has roots in the narrative not only concretely, but also thematically.  The stories of following are illustrative of what people even today are being asked to do when we respond in faith.  Biblical examples of following convey the image of conversion in that people leave things behind, change what they are doing, and begin new ways of life.  Third, the idea of following as similar to imitating or learning from someone is not complicated to grasp.  Disciples and discipleship are prominent biblical and theological ideas that help to elaborate what following Jesus means. 

Wayne Gordon, pastor of Lawndale Community Church, arrived at a similar conclusion about the preferability of inviting people to follow Jesus when making an evangelistic appeal.  He said that the widely recognized invitation to "get saved" carried with it so many accumulated layers of cultural distortions that he found it as much a barrier as an appeal for people hearing the message.  Moreover, the call to follow Jesus is much better at conveying the ongoing, lifelong process of salvation that constitutes the Christian calling.

I started out writing this post because of a conversation I had with students over the weekend.  This week in class, a discussion led to citing the importance of contextualizing certain virtue language in the framework of "a relationship with God."  It caused me to wonder what that specific phrase means.  Much rhetorical energy has gone into preaching a distinction between religion and relationship.  It is one of many examples of arguments based on stipulative definitions.  Religion and relationship are assigned specific meanings which by their stipulations make one preferable, even though these are not the only ways the terms are used.  Thus, there may be other ways to employ the term religion usefully and favorably, if it were not narrowly defined to be problematic.  Thus, relationship has a generally favorable connotation for popular theological conversation.

Current speech patterns employ the phrase "in a relationship" to replace what might previously have been described as "having a boyfriend/girlfriend" or "going steady," to name a few possibilities.  Such use of the term favors the implication of emotional involvement.  To speak in this context of a relationship with God can imply an emotional interdependence or general good feelings between a person and God.  While relationship with God does not exclude loving feelings or mutual recognition and appreciation, it is important to avoid having such terminology captured by popular speech patterns.  Theological understandings of love must not be truncated to mean mere emotional mushiness.

A broader context for the phrase "relationship with God" should reach toward doctrines of creation, anthropology, and Christology.  Stanley Grenz used the title "The Relational God" for an entire chapter of his extensive systematic text, Theology for the Community of God.  There he develops a framework in which to understand God as the source of human existence who in distinction from creation brings persons into existence with whom personal relation is possible.  Personal relationship recognizes the distinction between Creator and creation as well as the capacity for mutual knowing and interaction.  It is a way of situating humanity within the dynamic ordering of divine love that brings about creation and its possibilities.  Christologically, to be united to Christ, who is God incarnate taking humanity into Godself, is to be joined intimately with God through the eternal loving interchange among the Trinity.  In this way, being in relationship with God means that we are communing with God through having our nature renewed through the atoning life of the True Adam.

To be in relationship with God is to know that our beginning and end and the fullness of our existence are infused by grace which is the condition of possibility of our existence and the means of our present sustenance and future hope as beings.  To be in relationship with God is to have received this grace and embraced God's good purposes for humanity.  This much richer understanding of relationship helps to situate the popular emotional conception.  Moreover, when linked to conversation about friendship with God, terminology used by Jesus and much later by Thomas Aquinas, the relationality of God and the significance of "having a relationship with God" can become fruitful theological reflection.

Pre-teen children may well be able to understand many aspects of this discussion of what a relationship with God could be, although probably not in the overly cumbersome language I have used.  But the struggle to articulate a fuller meaning does illustrate my point that church conversation using shorthand terms often leaves plenty of misunderstanding and confusion that deserves further study and reflection.

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