Fr. Richard John Neuhaus was a prominent theologian and a prolific writer, who died about five years ago. A convert to Catholicism, he was raised Lutheran in a small town in Ontario where his father was the Lutheran pastor. Because all the Lutheran congregations in the area were small, they had a tradition of banding together each summer for a Mission Festival. At some central location they would erect a tent large enough to accommodate worshippers from four or five nearby towns. The choirs would come together to provide the music and they would bring in a big-time preacher from the seminary to preach the Mission. Fr. John tells the story in one of his books about a great spiritual breakthrough he had at one these Mission Festival when he was seven years old.
The Mission Preacher had been speaking for about an hour when suddenly he stopped talking. He pulled out his pocket watch and stared at it for a whole minute without saying a word. Then he put his watch back in his pocket and said, “In the last minute 37,000 souls have gone to eternal damnation because no one was there to tell them about Jesus.” John was alarmed. Why wasn’t anybody moving? 37,000 people had just gone to hell and everyone seemed to be taking the news so calmly: a mother was combing her daughter’s hair; two older kids were elbowing each other; most of the older people just sat and fanned themselves listlessly. John spent a restless night thinking about all the souls being condemned to hell every minute because no Christians were there to tell them about Jesus. Then, the next morning, he was in for an even bigger shock. At breakfast his dad told John that he and the mission preacher were going fishing for three days. How could they be going fishing for three days when 37,000 people were going to hell every minute? It was then that it dawned on him that he was the only person in the congregation that afternoon who had actually believed what the preacher was saying. In later life he came to identify the preacher’s extreme pronouncement as an example of “church talk”—simply a device to grab peoples’ attention during a long sermon on a hot day. Church talk is something said in church that has no real significance outside of church.
To come up with a glossary of “church talk” would not be difficult. Words like salvation, justification, redemption, incarnation, conversion, and resurrection could fall easily into that category if used carelessly; but so could words that should mean something to us personally, like Christmas, Easter, Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist. We may accept them as things that happen in church that are totally divorced from real life. It strikes me that what happened at Pentecost was the exact opposite of church talk. Anointed by the Spirit, this small group of believers poured out of the upper room where they had been secluded and were able to speak to a very diverse group of pilgrims from many nations who were in Jerusalem at the time. Their words were not only understood by people who spoke different languages, but these words were found to be both meaningful and transformative. 3,000 people were added to the church that day.
What language could the church use today that people would find both understandable and transformative, that would not just be dismissed as more “church talk”? Maybe the world has heard too many words already. Maybe we need to move beyond words and use the language of the Holy Spirit, the language of those who claim to be alive in the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Perhaps that was true at Pentecost itself: what really attracted people to the Christian community was not so much the words they heard but their encounter with Spirit-filled people. It was the love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control that was so captivating.
Perhaps you have seen a news report on the latest Pew Survey of religious practice in the United States, a survey that shows a significant drop in church affiliation in the United States among both Protestants and Catholics. This decline in church affiliation, however, is not matched by a corresponding drop in prayer or spirituality. People just do not choose to identify with any church institution. What this tells me is that people are searching. Thanks to the information superhighway, people have access to so many more spiritualities and spiritual gurus than they had in the past. For some, this shopping around may be motivated by a desire to avoid accountability or responsibility; but for most I believe it is motivated by a desire to find what is personally meaningful and transformative. People don’t want just “church talk”. So, the good news is that there are many more than 3,000 people still out there waiting to receive a message. The bad news is that they apparently find our message narrow, judgmental, and irrelevant.