Last Thursday, the diocese of Arizona had another educational summit for its clergy, this one on preaching. These summits are a chance for all the clergy in the diocese, and sometimes lay leaders in the parish as well, to receive continuing education on various topics: children and youth ministry, spiritual direction, music and liturgy, etc. (And also see our colleagues. An added bonus of no small worth in a diocese as big as ours.)
Adventures in Postmodern Ministry: We are not Family
Our presenter covered a lot of ground, but one of the points she touched on was that the meaning of language has shifted considerably in the past few decades. Therefore, in her preaching classes, certain words are off-limits: sin, grace, faith, hope, etc. She dubbed these “Teflon words” because their meanings are so loaded and expansive that anything can be thrown at them with no effect, unless the preacher specifically defines them.
I agree with this Teflon concept. Especially for folks who came of age in a post-Christendom world, there exists no one meaning for any of these theological terms. Just as the pleasant concept of a unified theory of systematic theology has broken down into a multitude of varied voices singing in (one hopes) harmony, each of our nice theological terms now has a variety of meanings attached to it. ‘Sin’ can mean what your mom says when you were 5, as well as what the crazy guy on the subway is yelling about as well as what Rick Santorum is currently pontificating about. Plus, probably whatever the preacher on South Park says it means.
Which means a couple things: #1, the average person is confused about theology and #2, preachers had better start defining their terms, unless they want their folks to be educated by the loudest voices in the room. (Who are liable to be Rick Santorum, and South Park.)
And, #3. Due to this varied soup of influences, words have ceased to mean what you think they mean. And perhaps, some words should only be used in the pulpit with the utmost caution.
To this latter list of Teflon words, might I add the word “family”?
I realize that I invite the shocked gasps of many throughout the church with this suggestion, as well as the writers of almost every parish profile I have ever read, but hear me out.
I understand that we would like the church to be a family. But I also think that what we mean by this term is: “a group of people who support and love each other unconditionally, through good times and bad, richer or poorer, etc.” It’s an aspirational goal; it’s what we strive to be like.
Because many of us (most of us, maybe) do not come from families that operated like this. Many of us came from families that did not manage to pull off the unconditional love concept, and who weren’t always so supportive of everything, all the time, always. Families can, and do, split up. Families can, and do, hurt each other and abuse each other, and store secrets for years and years. Aspirational goals, and Hallmark cards, aside, the reality of ‘family’ as many of us know it is not really an experience that anyone would want to import into the church. It’s not a life-giving metaphor; it’s covered with too much baggage.
Instead, why not be explicit with our aspirations? If we want to be a community of people who support and love each other unconditionally, then why not say that? Why not explain that this is, in fact, what Christian community is, and lay out exactly what our vision is? And this has never been more important than now, when there are so many competing voices, clamoring to claim what is Christian and what is not. What if we were to step forward and say, “Hey! Shocking as it may sound, a Christian community is determined by its ability to love and accept the newcomer and stranger, not its ability to judge more harshly than anyone else in town. Christian communities are built on love, not the skulls of the damned.”
Our ability to communicate the Gospel has never been more important, and it helps no one if we restrain ourselves to vague terms that are comforting shibboleths to us, but hopelessly baggage-laden to others. We need to be clear, crystal-clear, even, and forthright with our vision for a redeemed creation: words and all!