The Bull Ring, Birmingham
Two months ago, I talked about living in the light of the second coming of Jesus, and how it should illuminate our lives and the way we talk. At the time this somehow led me to remember my somewhat limited experience with open-air preaching. This took place decades ago in Birmingham, England when I was a student there. There were usually perhaps twenty listening, mostly, it must be admitted, other young Christadelphians, but it was also a time when my interactions with my fellow students offered many opportunities for religious conversations. I thought about how, in my lifetime, these opportunities have become fewer, even before I retired from the workplace. In this nominally Christian country, very few people talk regularly about religion. A recent opinion piece in the New York Times1 reported on a survey which showed that even among regular church goers, less than one in eight said they had engaged in any sort of religious conversation in the last week.
How times have changed! I have a picture from Birmingham in 1904, taken roughly in the same place I spoke, which shows a crowd of well over 1,000 listening to a Christadelphian, John Todd, speaking — which meant he must have been using his “outside” voice. Open air speaking is quite rare today. Perhaps the greatest recent exponent in this continent was Bro. Ron Abel, before his tragic early death.
“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone” (Col 4:6 NIV).
“For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict” (Luke 21:15NIV).
We all must pray that our words will truly be given the force and power that our Lord said they would, so that those who oppose our message will be without recourse. (This passage in Colossians is the only time “conversation” appears in the NIV in the New Testament: “conversation” in the KJV really means conduct.)
One major problem with religious conversations in our times is that even the vocabulary that most people use has changed over the years. Words common in the Bible have taken on other meanings. Take “grace” as an example: its most common meaning has become associated with movement, not God. Most people you come across will know what you mean by “saying grace,” if it is associated with thanking God for a meal, but “the grace of God” is rarely heard. I am sure that the average person will think of God moving smoothly, with elegance, not his free and unmerited favor.
This concept is illuminated by looking at the “Google ngram” corpus, which looks at the relative frequency of words in books over time.2 I looked at “grace”, and also “ecclesia”. I was interested to see “ecclesia” was relatively common around 1840, but is almost unknown today among the general population. Even “grace” has declined in usage since 1800, but of course is still far more common. This perhaps illustrates one difficulty we face when talking to our neighbors and our colleagues about religious matters. Just because a word is familiar to us because we hear it so often from our platform, and among social interaction during our attendance, does not mean it is common to others. It is surprising to me how relatively common “ecclesia” was 150 years ago, but its rarity today reinforces the fact that if we talk about attending our “ecclesia” to our neighbors, however well founded its use rather than “church”, it must surely confuse most, who will have no idea what we are talking about. And even common words like “gospel” and “salvation” are not in common use among the general population. So perhaps we ought to paraphrase the words of Paul as “let your discussions with your neighbors be full of words of kindness, seasoned with common sense, using wholesome words of common usage.” This corruption of language is again emphasized in the New York Times article. A survey shows the words used that follows “fruit of the spirit” by Paul have all decreased in usage in the last century.
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law”(Gal 5:22-23 NIV).
What should we do?
Particularly in the United States, it is becoming even more difficult to talk about religion. Unfortunately, religion has invaded the political arena, as some “Christian” groups pursue aparticular vision which sometimes tends to ignore the poor and the disadvantaged among us. The fissures in the safety net of our society seem to be becoming wider, and race is entering the discussion, in a way not seen for decades.
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female:for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).
“… there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all” (Col 3:11).
It does not matter what gender or race an individual is, nor whether they are in absolute poverty as slaves were, or as wealthy as Zacchaeus. All are equal in Christ, and need to be so treated by ourselves. As we reach out, we should strive to be like Paul:
“And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law; To them that are without law, as without law, (being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ,) that I might gain them that are without law. To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some”(I Cor 9:20-22).
Thus whether you are talking to your superior, your neighbor in your perhaps comfortable suburb, the janitor who cleans the premises, the hairdresser, the Uber driver, the homeless vagabond you pass in the street, all are deserving of your outreach. And you need to tailor your behavior, your speech, your attitude to each person. The language you would use to your religious neighbor who you see going to his or her church on a Sunday is necessarily different to the language you use to the janitor, who perhaps is not a native English speaker.
“And many false prophets shall rise, and shall deceive many. And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold. But he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come” (Matt 24:11-14).
As we look at Christadelphians around the world, we can see the numbers outside the English-speaking world increasing, as English speakers decrease. We see the gospel spread to all continents, even Antarctica on occasion. So perhaps the decline in the love of man for religion, and for speaking it, in the Western world is one of the signs of the end.
But in the face of this decline, we must remember to use words our hearers can understand, and help them appreciate the grace of God, even if they do not truly understand what grace means. And we should talk about the salvation of Jesus, even if we have to use different words.
“Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, l am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen” (Matt 28:19-20).
- “We Need to Talk About God”, New York Times, Oct 14,2018.
- It is a little dangerous to rely on this tool, as in the 19th century there were more religious books and fewer scientific ones, but it still is illuminating.
Letters to the editor can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your name, address, e-mail, and phone. Submissions under 300 words are encouraged — the magazine reserves the right to edit all submissions for length and clarity.