Opening words . . .

By Shane Isner

I crowd-sourced this fall’s sermon series on Facebook, and received great responses.  Thanks Facebook friends!  My setup was simple: “Say an unnamed pastor wants to preach on ‘tough questions’, what should s/he ask?”  Spoiler alert: the unnamed preacher was me.  Strangely, my friends figured that out quick.  And their wonderful responses re-taught me an important lesson for us religious types.

You see, I can separate my Facebook network into three categories.  First, there’s my family.  Then, church contacts and colleagues.  Finally, I have what I’ll endearingly describe as “Shane’s heathen college buddies.”

About that last group- I attended church some as an undergraduate, but not too much, and most of my pals weren’t religious.  They still aren’t.  But they’re great people- most of them- ethically considerate, spiritually interested, compassion rich.  And like a majority of college-educated young adults, they have little time for church.

Or, to put the point more finely, little interest in “organized religion.”  That isn’t news, of course.  But one effect of that worldview has consequences for church attendees, which played out on my Facebook page.  People from all three friends’ categories contributed.  Those already engaged in church asked questions like, “How can the Bible help me be a better parent?” or “What about predestination?”  My unchurched chums sounded different, however, asking, “What’s up with sexism and religion?”  Or “How can anyone hope to understand the Will of an Omni-whatever Being?”

Now, it’s not like these diverse, lovely inquirers had wildly different concerns.  Many people accustomed to parking their butts in pews on Sunday mornings, and those preferring park benches, wonder about evil, ecology, suffering, death, life, forgiveness, etc.  What struck me was the dissimilar tone of their queries, their disparate starting points.  A subtle, but distinct-seeming language of ‘Insider v. Outsider’ emerged.

After all, let’s be honest: If you’re not an already committed Christian, it’s probably not interesting to wonder, “What must The Church do to stay relevant?”  A curiosity, maybe, but not an immediate problem.  Or you’d ask the question skeptically, saying to your (that’s-really-your-job??!) pastor/buddy, “Hasn’t modern science made religion outdated?” Or “Isn’t the Bible too old to be relevant?”  Maybe it is, friend.  Touché.

In other words, while good Christian souls have recently watched a slow erosion in our numbers, some have wondered whether we’re suffering, fundamentally, from an image problem.  That’s particularly true in churches like ours- not-Evangelical, moderate-minded, open.  The thinking goes, “Hey, our values aren’t very different from many who don’t spend Sundays in worship.  If only they knew that…through a better marketing campaign, or something…we’d start growing, right?”  There’s something to that.  It’s one reason for this sermon series.  I figured that if we advertised to neighbors that we ask similar questions as they do, maybe they’d pay us a visit.

Then, I collected submissions, and it turns out, we might not be asking similar questions.  Have Christians grown so accustomed to being “Insiders” we no longer address our neighbors’ concerns?  Perhaps so.  Not in every situation, but often enough to matter.  And if so, then whatever “outreach” we attempt could fall on deaf ears.  Because we’ll sound deaf, to the hurts and hopes of local families, to the doubts and ideas of potential friends.  Not because we’re indifferent, or don’t share similar wonderings, but because we’re not seeing faith from these others’ perspective.

And that means we’re not acting like Jesus.  If there was one marketing ploy Jesus perfected, it was crafting his message in terms and stories that non-Disciples identified with instinctively.  Was he that glorious and brilliant?  Well, sure, but he also did one thing consistently well: He cared what was happening in the lives of those he wanted to serve, and aimed his efforts, his ministry at that directly.  He was no guardian of Insider Language.  He wasn’t concerned with solving The Church’s problems.  He worried more about people’s problems, and how his truth could illuminate theirs.  

So I adapted our questions for this fall to sound more like my college buddies than my Christian friends.  Not because one is better, but I’m betting we’ll connect more with new people if we start from where they already are.

Rev. Shane Isner is the pastor of a small Disciples of Christ church in the northwestern suburbs of Minneapolis.  He serves on several community non-profit boards, is the chair of his region's Commission on Ministry, loves his wife and his dog, and Jesus.  And the church!

Saving the "Saved" language

Language is a complex concept to begin with.  Add in culture, another complex concept—with regional, ethnic and socio-economic facets—and then generational understandings, speaking to another person even in technically the same language may result in garbled nonsense when trying to have a dialogue.  Then throw in theological language with all those understandings and facets and you begin to understand why two Christians of the same denomination, even the same church, can sometimes believe that they believe in two different Gods, or two different Jesus’. Even though I grew up in a liberal mainline small congregation, in my high school and college years I got very concerned with “being saved,” and with others “being saved.”  Now I have to explain: for some “being saved” means being saved from hell and going to heaven.  For me, “being saved” meant being acceptable to God because somehow I believed in my original state—in other words, who I was—was somehow not good enough for God.  I grasped on to this concept of “being saved” through the end-of-the-week altar calls at church camp, summer after summer.  In college, this manifested itself in the Campus Crusade for Christ meetings and other such gatherings where, most of the time, older men told us that the things we were doing as typical teens and young adults were sinful, that we were separated from God and therefore unworthy.  To make matters worse, often young, charismatic adults were recruited in these gatherings to reach out to us to tell us how we needed to “be saved.”

So nevermind the teachings of my church.  Nevermind the feeling I had when I was thirteen of God moving in me that someday I would be a minister.  Nevermind that I had been baptized when I was thirteen.  I still needed to be saved.  And more than once.  It seemed like I was never good enough for God when all these people kept telling me I needed to be saved.  And I felt that I wasn’t doing my part because I wasn’t out trying to save others all the time (actually, I did try, and I strained a few friendships because of it—people who still to this day won’t set foot in a church, and I played my part).

During my junior year of college when I took a course titled “Fundamentals of Sociology” I began to understand the complexity of social structures, culture, and other layers of our communities.  Even though I am quite certain my professor wanted nothing ever to do with Christianity or religion for that matter (except to study it in research), I credit her with my understanding of systemic sin.  Through that course I began to understand the role of power and patriarchy at play in the Christian church tradition in general.  I began to see how the systems and structures in place in our world kept the power out of the hands of the poor and oppressed.  And I began to see how this power play was at work in the very language of my faith.

I abandoned the term “saved” at that time.  I wanted nothing to do with being saved.  I was definitely a follower of Jesus but I was no longer trying to coerce others to think and believe the way I wanted to.  I stopped using much of the language of the Christian youth gatherings I had been a part of.   I stopped singing the praise songs about redemption and sacrifice.  I stopped going to any gathering where crying would be part of the worship experience.  I wanted to get away from anything that was emotionally charged, where power played on the fears of others, where emotions were manipulated to get us to commit to a relationship we already had with God.  I refused to use the word “saved.”

Even in seminary I avoided the term “saved.”  I argued with my field education supervisor who told me that there may be times when I need to “speak the language” that I still could not bring myself to use a word that had been used in such a manipulative, even abusive, way.  I would not ever make someone feel that they were not good enough for God.  I would not ever use a word that had made me feel that I was hopeless, helpless, and unworthy, the way I had perceived others telling me I needed to be “saved.”

Then it happened.  A family started coming to my church, a blended family with unmarried parents.  One of the parents came to me and asked me about what they needed to do to be “saved.”  I was taken aback.  At first I tried to explain that God desires relationship with us and that we can be in relationship with God and others, but as we talked, I realized she was very concerned about wanting to be in heaven.  She needed the reassurance.  She needed the hope.  And I realized I could not have a different conversation about Christ without her having the assurance first that she was “saved.”  So I did something I hadn’t done in years.  We prayed a salvation prayer, similar to the ones I had learned in my conservative youth group days.

But the difference this time was that the journey didn’t end there.  This was the beginning.  We were able to continue to meet, dialogue, and pray together, and her understanding of relationship with God through Jesus developed far beyond just a doorway into heaven.

I’m still not a fan of saying one needs to “be saved” or “get saved” in terms of talking about my own faith journey.  But I recognize that while for me, that language seemed damaging and hurtful, for others, it is familiar and comforting.  And having known people coming out of addiction or out of prison, people who have been able to come out of the darkness of depression—sometimes, people really are “saved” by Christ, in the real sense of the word: without relationship with Christ, they would have been lost, dead.

There is a danger, and I know I am guilty of this, in allowing language to be co-opted by another group, to the point one refuses to use it anymore.  In the liberal/mainline church, we have begun to abandon the language of our tradition and have allowed it to be used and misused by others.  Evangelical basically means “eager to share the Gospel.”  The Good News of Jesus the Christ.  But we have allowed evangelical to mean a particular theological/political slant.  We have abandoned the language of redemption and salvation at times to leave behind blood atonement theologies that don’t work for us, choosing a friendlier language for Jesus (remember “Buddy Jesus” from Dogma?) as if Jesus went smiling to the cross, instead of suffering, and dying.

Language matters.  And sometimes we in the liberal/mainline church have given over the language of our tradition to the point that our language cannot cross social-cultural boundaries.  We cannot reach out to those looking for a more progressive church home who still value their faith in Jesus, who understand their Savior as one who has really saved them from a life of sin, or from a life without meaning, or from hell itself.

As our 21st century church cultures continue to shift and transform, I think we will find many more who have grown up in the evangelical or fundamentalist churches looking for congregations that are welcoming and affirming of GLBTQ folk, congregations committed to social justice, congregations truly trying to make a difference in the world around them, here and now.  But can we learn their language and even have a conversation, or do we assume that they are abandoning their concept of relationship with Jesus as Savior as they abandon the prejudices their old churches may have held?  Can we speak the language of “being saved” by Christ, and understand our own faith journey in a language that we have once shed?  Can we share our language in a way that is not condescending or judgmental of the variety of theological backgrounds we come from?