Communicating the Gospel, the Brotherhood of the Shibboleth?

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The gospel is our lifeline, the slender thread that binds us to Jesus Christ, who rescues us. If Christians are held by this unbreakable thread, it is this same thread that needs to be tied around the waists of those that become aware that they too, hang over a precipice, into which they would fall, without a line connecting them to a rescuer.

This is a metaphor of the gospel, but ask yourself, does it make sense?  It evokes a visual of falling, of hanging, having a rescuer, but is this metaphor enough, do you think, to communicate the gospel to someone who has never read the bible, attended church or met with other Christians before?

 

The Word of God

Information continues to proliferate alarmingly, in such quantities that we use software to consolidate the sheer mass and to crunch it into meaningful patterns.  However, even now, the Word remains the only way that God speaks to us.  We may consume podcasts, films, blog posts, online articles and communicate by technologies like Skype, rather than reading hand written papyrus and sending letters, but it is still the Word that saves, be it written or spoken.  Indeed, rather than replacing the Word, many technologies of this age have only increased its dissemination and through it, God continues to save.

 

The fading glory

However, just as Moses obscured his face after ministering at the temple, we confuse and obscure the Word of God through the use of inscrutable language – Gospel, evangelical, reformed, Christ-centred, worship, outreach, born again, disciple. Now, I am not against such language, these words rightly carry meaning for me and others, but we need to stop and think: if we speak to an increasingly diverse, multicultural and secular society, do these words cross the borders between our understanding and the understanding of our readers and listeners? Can our readers conceive of the sacrifice, holiness and patience of our loving God through the common language of evangelicalism?

 

Shibboleth – Open Sesame

In an effort not to obscure my own meaning, the term shibboleth becomes the kind of shorthand password for conveying meaning. When I say gospel, you may hear ‘saving work of Jesus Christ that overcomes our sin and stands in before God for our punishment’, I say ‘Christ-centred’, you may take it to mean ‘entire life focus on responding in worship to Christ’s work’, is that right?  Or do you hear another meaning, or, perhaps, none at all?

In different Christian ‘tribes’ there exist certain Shibboleths or ‘passwords’, which open doors of trust, understanding and encouragement. Over the years spent in a number of different Christian church denominations and para churches, I have understood and enjoyed the comforting warmth of the shared meaning of certain words in a sermon.  In that same sermon, the alienated and excluded sit, confused and unreached, as the language spoken has not crossed the border of meaning for them, they leave, misunderstood by those around them, we may have even thought their lack of understanding showed a lack of true faith.

In the same way, I have sat in sermons which contained less spoken meaning (to me) than an episode of ‘In the Night Garden’, surrounded by the ‘Amens’ and ‘praise Jesus!’ of other listeners.  These sounds communicate the exuberance of shared meaning, language and voice, while I sit, alienated, and to their minds, potentially unsaved.  The language used did not refer to bible passages but phrases of ‘on the front foot’ or ‘a life lived with purpose’. Not to disparage the people that find meaning, purpose and encouragement within these words, but these words derive from management and marketing, which, as Don Watson points out in ‘Death sentence: The Decay of Public Language’ management and marketing languages are ‘productivity driven’ and cannot convey emotion, or for that matter, grace as the gift freely given by God.[1]Don Watson, “Death Sentence: The decay of public language” (Vintage Australia, 2004). p3.

 

Watch your language

I have been part of congregations that judged the holiness of its members (and fringe dwellers) through the words they used, who they voted for and how they prayed.  The person using a different Shibboleth was considered unwise and potentially unsaved. If asked to describe their beliefs, they could not produce the required Shibboleth, which confirmed their position as ‘outside of the fold’.  It may sound like an extreme group, it wasn’t then and isn’t now and, unfortunately, it’s more common than you may think.

Watson goes on to say that ‘among Druids, masons and economists we expect language to be unfathomable or at least unclear and strange’, and ‘where cults exist, the language inclines to the arcane and inscrutable’.[2]Watson. p4 But we are not economists, organisational consultants or motivational speakers and I sincerely hope we are not cults.

“Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold. We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to prevent the Israelites from seeing the end of what was passing away.“[3]2 Corinthians 3:12-14

 

As represented in the verse above, we have nothing to hide, so it’s important to ask if we have become too efficient with business or management lingo to communicate truth, or too intellectual to connect with our audience, or simply resigned ourselves to certain shibboleths that are understood only by our congregation or friends from the same theological college. Do we exclude Christians from our fellowship or leadership teams because they fail to use words we elevate in value above others?

 

Lost in Translation

“ For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to people but to God. Indeed, no one understands them; they utter mysteries by the Spirit.  But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort.”((1 Corinthians, 14:1-4))

 

These verses have often understood to mean the kind of speaking in tongues found in those churches which focus on spiritual gifts, but they can also mean other languages. Subsequently, should we not also examine ourselves to see if we speak in cultural tongues that are failing to edify, or build up the faith of others? To finish with the words of Paul:

…if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and inquirers or unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind?  But if an unbeliever or an inquirer comes in while everyone is prophesying, they are convicted of sin and are brought under judgment by all, as the secrets of their hearts are laid bare. So they will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, “God is really among you!”

Will visitors to your church say “God is really among you” with excitement?  Are you bridging the gap between your possible Shibboleths and the level of understanding of your friends and neighbours?  Are you seeking to understand your Christian brothers who speak other languages, be they linguistic or cultural? Let us go and proclaim the gospel with clarity as we ought .

References   [ + ]

1.Don Watson, “Death Sentence: The decay of public language” (Vintage Australia, 2004). p3.
2.Watson. p4
3.2 Corinthians 3:12-14
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Amy Isham
Amy is married to Luke and lives in Horsham with her two busy children Evangeline and Solomon, where Luke is the pastor of Horsham Presbyterian Church and Amy is a PhD candidate and lecturer at Federation University in their Social Science Faculty.  Amy enjoys reading, thinking, a well made flat white, singing and analysing culture and ideology.
  • Albert Garlando

    Nailed. It.
    Thanks Amy.