Regardless of how anyone us might wish to return to an era in which this level of religious identity was to any degree the norm, or, conversely, of how anyone may view the passing of this identity as progress, the present reality is that long-held assumptions about religion and civic life are not what they used to be. This means that we can no longer assume common knowledge and language on matters of faith. When we seek to reach out to the world around us, we cannot assume that anyone will understand if all we use is “Church language” that assumes a certain minimal knowledge of biblical stories or characters, or assumes a certain minimal knowledge of what a Christian is.
The reality is that the American synthesis of national and religious identity—to the extent it ever existed—was never the norm in the history of cultures, and the assumption of any synthesis was damaging to faith. This is not to say that faith must be hostile to the culture. It just means that the Church has from the very beginning been called to be “in the world but not of the world”, a fact recognized by the apostle Peter when he refers to the first Christians as “resident aliens” and sojourners (1 Pet. 2.11), and by the apostle Paul, who reminds us that our true citizenship is in heaven (Phil. 3.20). The challenge, as in all sojourning, becomes one of communication. How do we communicate with those who don’t share in the language and knowledge of belief? How do we use the language of the culture in order to reach the culture, to testify in ways that we will draw people into a greater knowledge of the faith?
In advertising it might be true that “sex sells”, but this truism points immediately to what we cannot do. We cannot use the language of the culture if the language embodies idolatry. One of the most accurate criticisms of the so-called Prosperity Gospel is that telling people what they want to hear (“God wants to bless you with success [that will look like this …]!”) just feeds into how they may already worship an idol such as wealth or power. How can the culture in fact be used to point to a message that is not of the culture?
We can use the language of the culture by first paying attention to what we share in common, by what is not idolatrous, but represents the yearning fundamental to the human condition. For example, if we were to poll a sample of non-believers, most would still profess a personal belief that they want to be a “good” person, that “truth” matters, that despite materialist arguments they suspect that life is not just in fact random but has some “purpose”. The problem becomes that we do not agree on how to define good, where to look for truth, or how purpose can be experienced. How do we start to develop this common language?—by sharing in lives. Under the old assumptions about identity, a person had to “believe to belong”, i.e., he/she had to give his/her heart to God in order to become a follower of Jesus Christ, a member of the Church. The new condition is one where a person has to “belong to believe”, i.e., he/she can only give his/her heart to God by experiencing God in a worshiping community.
The “belong to believe” model is actually quite old. It involves the Celtic missionary practice common in Ireland in the Middle Ages, in which believers got to know their neighbors, incorporated them into the community, and walked alongside them as they came to experience and then profess the faith. Our proclamation must first involve inviting using non-religious cultural language about gathering and community and shared experience. To do this we must be very intentional in how we reach out to those around us, particularly when they strike us as different. This can begin with baby steps, like learning and using the first names of all of your immediate neighbors; to allow you to progress to talking (just a little) about yourself, and how you gather with others; to inviting them to a gathering that involves a meal; to inviting them to experience a worship service with you. Whatever baby steps they want to take, be thankful to God, and as you walk alongside your neighbor focus on developing a common vocabulary of experience, that they may come to know their first few phrases of the language of belief in who they see you to be.
Above all, keep reaching out. Keep inviting. Keep testifying, “whether the time is favorable or unfavorable” (2 Tim. 4.2), knowing that as you walk alongside your neighbor you plant the seeds which will by God’s grace bear fruit.
Yours in Christ Jesus,
The Rev. Dr. Karl C. Schaffenburg