Your conversation is not with an avowed atheist. Your conversation is not with someone who dismisses faith out-of-hand, but they don’t “get it,” or see any need for faith. Faith and the practice of faith are not part of their world, and they cannot name any sense of being diminished because of this absence. Before you can make any connection with your indifferent or even interested partner in conversation you have to first ask yourself two important questions:
- How am I a different person because of my faith, and how is this seen by others?
- Am I speaking a language (in matters of faith) that is understood by others?
Let’s look at the second question first. If, for example, in describing what I do in church I describe how we are sacramentally centered, what happens when I am speaking with someone who is thinking “What’s a sacrament?” If I speak about Jesus as releasing me from sin, what happens when the person with whom I speak isn’t sure he believes in sin, or thinks of sin only in terms of human dysfunction? Until I can understand and use the language my conversation partner uses, I and the faith remain a phenomenon to which he may not be hostile, but for which he feels no need.
The era in this country in which a conversation between new acquaintances might include the question “What church do you attend?” is gone. We are surrounded by people who think of church purely in terms of personal choice, in the same way they might acknowledge that I am really interested in Russian opera, and they are not. They are not going to make fun of me for being passionate about Russian opera, but if I try to hold their attention through a conversation about the differences between the 1869 and 1872 versions of Boris Godounov, they’re probably not going to engage in further conversation! In faith, if I start speaking about the differences between a sacramental church and an “evangelical” one, my focus on what I know ends up just excluding those not “in the know”.
When Jesus spoke, when the apostles spoke, they did so in the context of first establishing a relationship with their listeners. Our first focus must be on establishing community, and as people become comfortable in community, it is then that they can start to better understand and appreciate what is at the core of the community—the Body of Christ—and it is then that they can respond in faith.
Which brings us back to the first question: How am I seen to be a different person because of my faith? When the Church speaks of love of neighbor, if I am seen to be indifferent to my neighbor the faith itself becomes no more than my own particular interest, like Russian opera. But if I proclaim love of neighbor and am seen to engage in sacrificial service to those around me in need, despite the many differences that may exist between me and them, then others will start to notice that faith matters.
The passing of “cultural Christianity” is a good thing, because when the practice of religion is just a default cultural expectation the practice is seen to be hollow. But when the cultural reinforcements are gone the Church exists because of the faith of her members and the grace of God alone. It is when the Church feels (and is) vulnerable that she knows that she is dependent on God’s grace alone, and it is then that we can communicate with people who are themselves vulnerable, often vulnerable in ways that they cannot name. It’s when we can share in brokenness that the words and acts which God gives can foster transformation.
Be vulnerable, that you can be changed and can participate in the change in others. Speak their language. Meet them where they are, inviting without any condition. As a parish we are going to focus very much on how to communicate outside the parish, and how to do so in language that presupposes no knowledge. We will do this using electronic media (expanding our web presence) and in person, and—most importantly—by and through the persons who make up this church, all of you.
A final note: On Pentecost Archdeacon Michele preached a powerful sermon in which she reminded us how the Holy Spirit uses us to fulfill God’s will. What she didn’t say is that the Holy Spirit has a sense of humor, to take a dinosaur like me and throw me into the world of blogs, podcasts, Twitter, etc. (I still prefer to write with a fountain pen!) When God makes a fool out of me (cf. 1 Cor. 1 & 4) then may we rejoice together that by this foolishness someone may be reached in a language not mine. (Oh, and by way of a post script, the yurodivy or Holy Fool is a prominent character in Boris Godounov!)
Yours in Christ Jesus,
The Rev. Dr. Karl C. Schaffenburg Rector