Last month I asked one of the lead researchers from the National Study on Youth and Religion if theology mattered when it came to differentiating between ‘highly-religious’ teens and ‘not-as-religious’ teens. Melinda Lundquist Denton’s response was:
“Theological particularity is somewhat lost at least on this generation (we don’t have data on the adults.) But, the youth themselves can’t really talk about theological particularity they aren’t really sure what it means to be Lutheran, Methodist or whatever. Their version or understanding of their faith is what it means to me (individually.) They aren’t really conversant on those issues (of theology.)”
What struck me about this interview and a previous interview with leaders in the church is that there are clearly issues with the language of faith. The more than 200+ young people across the United States that they spoke with could not share what they believed and why they believed it. If young people are products of their parents, then we can make some assumption that their parents are also not conversant about faith or faith issues. Therefore, as mainline protestant churches across the United States, we may have to ask ourselves, “Why?” Is it not our responsibility to teach the language of faith? Or have we and the people in the culture succumb to allowing the popular culture to dictate the language of the people? It seems to me the only ones who can speak the language of faith semi-fluently and conversantly are the preachers. And the preachers seem perfectly content leaving that expertise and power in their own hands.
This is problematic, people of God! Church Leaders need to share the language of faith! Churches need to equip and empower persons to convey and practice the language of God’s love and grace. It is not for the sake of being able to recite bible verses or prove how good you are at God-talk, but rather it is for the purpose of being able to stand firmly and confidently in the security of God’s grace and love when the world is beating you down. It is knowing how to turn to find others who speak the language of God’s love and grace when you feel all alone and lost in the midst of tragedies in your life.
Walter Brueggeman points to a passage in 2 Kings 18-19 that demonstrates the importance of a common language of faith. Several theologians have pointed to this passage and Brueggeman’s insights recently. He called it “behind the wall conversations.”
The story is about a young king, King Hezekiah, whose kingdom is being attacked by the Assyrians. The field commander of the Assyrians is standing on the wall speaking insults about the King, their kingdom and their God. The problem is, he is speaking the language of the people, raising fear and doubt in their hearts about whether or not their king and their God can protect them. But, because King Hezekiah has been a faithful and loving king, sharing God’s language of love and grace with the people. And because, King Hezekiah trusted the Lord and demonstrated that trust through his actions and his words, the people could confidently and faithfully stand firm against the Assyrians. It is written in chapter 18, verse 36, “But the people kept quiet and didn’t answer him (the field commander) with a single word, because King Hezekiah’s command was, “Don’t answer him.” (CEB) They were well trained and in their silence, they spoke the language of faith, hope and love for their God and their King.
The language of faith, hope and love for God has been instilled in our hearts and souls from conception and since our birth. In the Methodist tradition we call it prevenient grace. The problem is we have not practiced this language enough and we don’t share it or teach it to our children. So, when the “Assyrians” of our time and place threaten to attack, we often fight back with more words of war and destruction rather than respond with the trust that God will prevail in the silence of our faith, hope and love.
What is your church doing to teach this language? What is your church doing to give people opportunities to practice the language? One of the identifying factors of “Highly-vital Congregations” in the Call to Action report is their ability to “engage” the people in ministry. ENGAGEMENT comes with teaching them the language of God’s love. ENGAGEMENT comes when we equip them to use the language of God’s love in a multitude of places.
The ministries and characteristics of congregations that ENGAGE more people and EQUIP them to use the language of God’s love are:
- Small Groups (with intentional spiritual formation)
- Ministries for Children
- Ministries for Youth
- Equipping lay leaders for effectiveness in the church and world
- Worship that is relevant to the community needs
- Clergy leaders who SHARE (the language of faith, hope and love) through coaching, mentoring and empowering lay leaders to (practice speaking the language and living out of this language of faith, hope and love.)
- Clergy leaders who invest time (length of appointment) in that particular community of faith.
PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT! Teach God’s people the language of faith, hope and love.
Amy Valdez Barker
Amy Valdez Barker is a long time youth minister from the North Georgia Conference. She is currently a PhD student at Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary working with the Vital Congregations Project.