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The Language of the Church

One of my favorite “what-ifs” is to ask the question, “What if God had chosen to make the sky purple instead of blue, and the grass orange instead of green?” People’s first response is always, “That would be weird.” But the truth is, it wouldn’t be weird because we’d never know the difference.

Only recently did I realize that the order of the letters in the alphabet, “A, B, C, D, E, F, G …” is an arbitrary order. It’s not like numbers, where the order is necessary to convey value. No, the order of the alphabet holds no effect on the way the letters work. For whatever reason, our letters were put in that order and now that makes them easy for us to learn and remember, but the alphabet could just as easily begin with F and end with Q with any combination of the other 24 that you like stuck in the middle.

Growing up in church, I always had certain beliefs and understandings about Christianity. I always believed that preachers wore suits, had gold watches and smelled funny. I always believed that hymns were especially sacred. I always believed that preachers had to talk in a certain cadence. I believed that it was rude and probably sinful to sit when everyone else was standing. I believed that the words preachers used to describe God, and the way they talked about things concerning God, was the only way to talk about Him. I believed that it was probably sinful to not like a Christian song, or not like a hymn or to have bad feelings towards anything that happened in the church. I grew up learning what I understood to be the language of Christianity.

As I grew up, I started to rethink this, but it only lead to other problems. I started to learn a new language. It was a language that included cooler speakers who told jokes and praise songs played by bands that were pretty good for the most part and always better than the hymns (which I still felt bad about not liking). It included a lot of games and Christian t-shirts. There were a lot of really fun, excited people with too much energy doing really annoying things that they thought were funny. A lot of open sharing was encouraged, and these people talked about things like drugs and sex and peer pressure—stuff the other preachers didn’t touch. And there were these things called “camps” where we would go to learn about all of this stuff. They were a lot of fun, for sure, but they taught me another language.

Then there was this thing called “worship” that everybody started talking about. There was this idea of worship that I had never seen before. Often—almost always—this worship involved music. We were taught to worship with music without it being made clear exactly what worship was. I thought that God obviously talked to people through this music, and I wondered more than once why he didn’t say a whole lot to me when I listened to it. They taught us to raise our hands, to kneel down, to use words like “broken” and “holy” and “mighty” a lot. They taught us how to pray cool prayers using those words. They taught us that we didn’t have to say things like “thee” and “thou” when we prayed. And we ate a lot of pizza.

So at different points in my life, these are the things that I equated with being a Christian. I thought that Christians had to do these things in order to be in God’s will. It never occurred to me what Christianity in Zimbabwe might look like, where they don’t have lights and sound. It never even occurred to me what it might look like in England, or Mexico, or even Canada. I thought that these things I did were required of me as a believer in Christ, and so by that rationale, I thought that to dislike these things, or to find them to not be effective meant that I was not doing what God wanted me to do.

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I have another favorite “what if.” If a person is born blind, having never seen anything in their life, how do you explain color to them? Having never seen anything, the word “blue” would be meaningless to them. “Shade,” “hue,” “darkness,” “light,”—none of these things could be communicated to someone who has never seen anything. They would have no point of reference for understanding such concepts.

That person who was not raised in a church environment—that person who grew up in a world where God did not exist and Jesus was never an option—what do they see when they come to Christ? When they find Jesus, when they experience salvation, what do they associate with it? They surely don’t see church. They don’t hear church language and quote church slogans and catchphrases. “Holy,” “hallelujah,” “glory,”—these words might have no meaning to them. How do the blind see Jesus?

However it is, that is what I want. God existed before church did. I want to see what He looks like without looking through the lens of a well-crafted service or message. But to truly do that at this point in my walk would take more than a strong-willed mind. I would have to rewrite the language that I have learned. For us to see God that way, we would have to stop talking about Him the way we do and start doing things differently.

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