Wednesday, July 10, 2002

Is the same language appropriate for both Christian evangelism outside the Church in the world and worship by Christians in the Church

Is the same language appropriate for both (a) Christian evangelism outside the Church in the world and (b) worship by Christians in the Church of the Blessed, Holy and Undivided Trinity of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost [Spirit]?

All Christians are called to engage in evangelism; and for some it is their primary vocation in life - they are evangelists. In evangelism the message is directed to those who have not been baptized in the Name of the Trinity, that is those who have not repented of their sins and believed on the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins and for a right relation with his Father. In order to be understood by such persons the content of the Gospel message has to be presented as clearly and simply as possible but without over simplifying, distorting or reducing its challenge.

Let us be clear that the Good News which is the Gospel of Jesus Christ does not sound like good news at first to the average westerner whose mind is heavily conditioned by materialism and secularism. Good News for him is in terms of good health, good living, good job, good holidays, good retirement and so on. It is only when his soul is not being satisfied by the this-worldly culture and recognizes its disordered state that he has any inclination to hear a message about the Creator of the Universe who is also its Judge and Saviour, and who offers him friendship and communion if he will repent and believe.

The Gospel primarily concerns that which is invisible and eternal, that which is transcendent and infinite, but yet that which can be glimpsed and tasted and experienced in part in the finite experience in this world, in anticipation of the fuoness of the age to come. Thus the evangelist has to go outside normal vocabulary and forms of expression to present a faithful account of the basic themes of, Who is God, Who is Jesus Christ, What is salvation, and how man is to respond to God's offer of salvation in Jesus Christ. Thus evangelism cannot be simply and only in the language used by a popular newspaper to describe political and sporting events. It requires an special vocabulary, as does for example computer usage.

Happily, the evangelist finds that within the English language there is a long tradition of words, phrases and expressions that have been tested in usage and are intimately connected with conversion to Christianity. At some time or another he has to use these and he may have to spend time in explaining the meaning of these words for without them he cannot teach people what it is that God graciously offers. If the evangelist seeks to avoid the use of these words and replace them with words that he sees as dynamic equivalents then he runs the danger that his hearers will understand these words according to their this-worldly sense. Thus there is a fine balance required between speaking in a way that people understand and doing justice to the unique content of the Gospel message.

When the seeker, the catechumen or the new believer is introduced by the evangelist to Christian worship in the Christian assembly, then, if that worship is true to its genius, there will be not only a very different ethos [= the beauty of holiness] than found anywhere else in the world, but there will be also the use of a specialized vocabulary (even also idiom & syntax). This will be so whether the form of English is "traditional" or "contemporary" (to use the descriptions of liturgists). Obviously the difference in the language of worship from the language of the media will be more apparent if the former is "traditional" (e.g., that of the King James Version and the Book of Common Prayer); but even the "contemporary" contains words and phrases that are not in use elsewhere. [One may describe this "contemporary" language of prayer as a half-way house between the "traditional" and the language of popular journalism.]

So the language of evangelism is usually the language spoken by the people but refined because of the Subject matter [GOD] and requiring at some stage the use of specialized vocabulary to be true to this Subject, the Lord God. Then, the language of worship, for example the Order for Holy Communion [the Eucharist], whether in "traditional" or "contemporary" language form is not the language spoken by the people for it is a specialized language for a unique purpose. Where else do people speak of feeding upon a person's body and blood as their food?

This simple division between the language of evangelism and the language of common worship is often blurred today because church services are seen by some ardent clergy as opportunities of evangelism and so they wish them to be seeker-friendly. Thus they are addressed to men not to God! In these situations some Christians apparently get the opportunity or the experience to engage in sustained worship for a full hour - yet to enjoy and glorify God is their vocation and destiny.

When the service is a mixture of (a) evangelistic techniques based upon modern theories of communication along with (b) hymns and prayers that are in the form of Christians praising God or interceding for the world, then there can be confusion as to which language to use. Usually because the emphasis is upon relevance and acceptability, what may be called the vertical or the transcendent dimension gives way to the horizontal and to the immanent and so the ethos is not to too different from a stage show and the language is over simplified, adapted to the ends of easy understanding, and thus basically secular. Inevitably here whatever is taken to be the Gospel is somewhat less than or different from the Gospel that is preached in differing circumstances where the ethos is that of the vertical and transcendent and God is perceived as the holy Judge rather than the friendly Forgiver.

Today it is harder than ever, because of the character of the culture in which westerners live and breathe, to go into a holy place (church building) and prepare oneself to engage in communion with the Creator, Judge and Redeemer of mankind. Too many of us seem to enter into churches for a religious and communal experience that is primarily of this world and is not a journey to the gates of heaven. In these circumstances, it may well be that the revival of what may seem archaic and outdated in words and music - "the traditional" -- may be the most efficient means to help aspiring souls to reach toward God and heaven and to be prepared to respond to God's outreach to them. In fact, the traditional English language of prayer has within in, and associated with it, many rich themes of forms of speech and music which have proved their worth and power to lift aspiring souls high on their journey to meet with the Lord. Of course, this language, which has long been in the making and which has depth and quality, is not learned in one sitting; rather the experience of its use is such that it grows upon one as one recognizes that it is fulfilling its task of facilitating communion with the God of all grace, holiness and beauty.

The Rev'd Dr. Peter Toon
Minister of Christ Church, Biddulph Moor,
England & Vice-President and Emissary-at-Large
of The Prayer Book Society of America

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