In a recent New York Times editorial, Jonathan Merritt observes that “It is getting harder to talk about God.” Merritt became aware of this when he moved not long ago from Atlanta to New York city. He had not lost his facility with the English language, but he found that subtle social pressures made it harder as well. But, as Merritt notes, the fact that it really is getting harder to talk about God is neither limited to his own experience or to the anecdotal differences that he had casually catalogued along the way.
A recent study shows that, in fact, people really are finding it harder to talk about God. Commissioning his own study by the Barna Group, researchers discovered that, in a survey of 1000 Americans:
More than one-fifth of respondents admit they have not had a spiritual conversation at all in the past year. Six in 10 say they had a spiritual conversation only on rare occasions — either “once or twice” (29 percent) or “several times” (29 percent) in the past year. A paltry 7 percent of Americans say they talk about spiritual matters regularly.
More shocking, yet, Merritt notes:
Practicing Christians who attend church regularly aren’t faring much better. A mere 13 percent had a spiritual conversation around once a week.
Merritt notes that part of the reason for this state of affairs is that – as he himself found – people need to define their terms when talking about God, because fewer and fewer people know the meaning of the words that they use. Merritt also admits that he himself wasn’t quite sure how to define some of the words that he once used without hesitation.
He also notes that certain fears are driving people away from talking about God. The survey he commissioned revealed that people had other reasons, too, for avoiding conversations of a religious nature:
Some said these types of conversations create tension or arguments (28 percent); others feel put off by how religion has been politicized (17 percent); others still report not wanting to appear religious (7 percent), sound weird (6 percent) or seem extremist (5 percent).
What are churches to do?
One, they need to begin teaching people the Christian faith again. Far too many clergy in small parishes complain that they don’t have time to teach their congregations and large parishes devote far too much time to boutique conversations about subjects that might even be good to have, but which they pursue to the exclusion of basic faith formation. Any idea for Christian education and formation that begins with the words, “Wouldn’t it be neat, to…”, is probably a bad idea.
Two, church leaders need to avoid using “stained glass language” that they fail to define, unpack and connect with the lived experience of people in the pews. It is doubtful that people ever understood as much as we assumed that they did about the vocabulary of the Christian faith. And far too many pastors, teachers and formation leaders are, themselves, superficially acquainted with the theological language. But, in order to help those in our churches rediscover that vocabulary, it also needs to be discussed in a concrete, lived way that reconnects with the experiences that made that language important in the first place. (for a concrete example, see: The Dave Test: A Raw Look at Real Faith in Hard Times).
Three, churches need to reconnect with theological language and abandon the quick-sell that has become the staple in America’s pulpits. Christians don’t just lack fluency in talking about God, they are also theologically and spiritually illiterate. And part of the reason that they are illiterate because far too much of what passes for the “Gospel” in America’s pulpits is cast in the language of self-help or politics. God cares about both the individual’s well-being and our collective destiny as the body of Christ. But that vision of the future is grounded in understandings of God’s purposes, our lives and what God wants for us that transcends the therapeutic and the political.
Four, we need to recapture the courage of our convictions. It is not abusive or uncharitable — it is not narrow or judgmental — to be truly convinced that what we believe is vital to our own well-being and those around us. To arrive at that point is, for any human being, a matter of intellectual, spiritual and emotional maturity. And being able to engage others in a conversation about those convictions is not, by definition, mean-spirited or uncharitable. Indeed, being tolerant is a matter of owning the particularity of our own convictions, of welcoming conversation with people whose lives are motivated by other convictions, and of having a charitable conversation about the differences.
The early church was confronted by far greater challenges and existential dangers than the ones we face. Our love of comfort should not keep us from owning our faith in the Triune God in whom we move and have our being.