April 20, 2021

If You Want to be Understood

Do you want to have meaningful conversations about spirituality, especially with non-members? If so, I encourage you to consider three principles.

First, avoid jargon. I define ‘jargon’ as any word you have not used outside of church activities during the last week. Certainly ‘exegesis’ applies, as do ‘salvation theory’, ‘eschatology’ and ‘incarnation’. But have you considered ‘narthex’ and ‘Eucharist’? My suggestion is if you find the need to use such words, explain them at the same time. In writing we would say ‘narthex’ (lobby).

I know! We went to school for a long time and want to make sure people know that. When I lead spiritual gifts identification workshops I say the real gift of tongues is shown by an accountant who can explain a balance sheet! Maybe there is a similar statement for clergy.

In addition to being confusing and even insulting, jargon can cause us to think incorrectly. I try to avoid the words ‘church’ and ‘unchurched’ because, much as we hate to admit it, ‘church’ means the institution to most people. If we speak about the ‘unchurched’ then we are focusing on them joining the institution when we should focus on deepening their spiritual life, which is likely to include becoming involved with a ‘spiritual home’. Using something like “spiritually hungry” helps us keep focused on what really matters, including people who are already institutional members.

Second, remember that it does NOT matter what we say. Not in the least. The only thing that matters is what they hear. I mentioned that ‘church’ means ‘institution’ to most people. We may mean the people when we speak of the church but if they hear ‘institution’ then we are not communicating.

I suspect every preacher has been approached after a service and criticized or complimented about something they did not actually say in the sermon. When it is a compliment, I assume the Holy Spirit was at work. When it is a criticism, I assume they were not listening.

It does not matter what we preach. It only matters what they hear.

If we sincerely wish to be understood by people who are spiritually hungry, we must focus entirely on what they are hearing. Obviously, we need to think through what we want them to hear but then we need to structure our words so that is what they hear.

Most clergy have talked about active listening during couple’s therapy. The same thing applies to our conversations with a spiritually hungry person. We need to listen carefully to their responses to uncover what they heard and then not correct them but correct our wording.

Allow me to relate all this to scripture. A general connection can be found in Jesus’ teachings. He always used words and images His audience could understand. At that time, in most parts of the world, the images of sheep and shepherds would have meant nothing. Where He was, they were perfect. And in Matthew 11:28-30 Jesus criticizes the religious elite for making the teachings too difficult to understand.

The third principle applies to communication but also to most of our activities. Every single person at every single moment is doing whatever is their highest priority at that moment. They may want to be napping, but mowing the lawn is a higher priority at that moment.

They may have some desire to be part of a spiritual conversation, but many things are of higher priority. We need to honestly admit that and consider the consequences. If we believe spirituality is a very high priority and they do not, the fault is ours! Not theirs, but ours. We have not done a good enough job communicating. Very possibly the poor communication is in our listening rather than our speaking. We are offering what we think is important rather than what they would find important.

Other times the failure is in what we say. Which title says this will be interesting enough to be a high priority: Bible study: The Gospel of John or Beautiful, artistic images in the Gospel of John? Even better, if we want people to find something to be a high priority, make it clear it applies to them directly: Does Jesus tell me I have to forgive my abusive spouse? and not simply Jesus’ teachings on forgiveness.

Consider what is heard when we essentially say, “if you want to worship God you have to do it at our place at 11am on Sunday.” Is the message one of servanthood? If any business took that attitude how would you feel about them? Yes! I am fully aware of the practical limitations as well as the theological (jargon!) issues involved. Today I am simply challenging us to consider what we are communicating.

Ultimately, it all goes back to the first question I asked: Do you want to have meaningful conversations about spirituality, especially with non-members? If that is the goal, and if it is not already happening, then we need to consider our communication efforts.