“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”
The Apostle Paul
In 2010 Stanley Hauerwas gave a commencement address to Eastern Mennonite Seminary with the title, “Speaking Christian.”
In that address he said, “To learn to be a Christian, to learn the discipline of faith, is not just similar to learning another language. It is learning another language.” He went on to say that learning how to “speak right” is an essential task for the church if we are to bear effective, faithful witness to the Kingdom of God before a watching world.
The idea of language learning was on my mind earlier this year during a 4-month sabbatical from pastoral ministry at Toledo Mennonite Church (TMC). As part of the sabbatical experience my family and I visited our sister-church in Dodoma, Tanzania. I knew our hosts and many people we would meet would speak English, but I was still doing my best in the months leading up to the experience to learn to speak basic Kiswahili.
Yet as anyone who has ever tried to learn a foreign language knows, it is not a quick or easy process. While learning some basic vocabulary and phrases may be a gesture of respect, it is certainly a long way from fluency.
Language is a vehicle for culture. True fluency is therefore more than a matter of grammar and vocabulary, but requires learning a new culture, a new way of thinking, a new worldview. To gain that requires more than studying it in a book. It requires immersion into the culture of the language you are trying to learn.
Recalling Hauerwas’ words along with this recent cross-cultural experience, I was reminded that learning to speak Christian requires the same kind of immersion experience as does learning a foreign language.
We see this paradigm at work in Acts 2. The chapter begins on the day of Pentecost. The disciples were together in a room when a violent wind filled the place. The Holy Spirit descended, tongues of fire rested upon them, and they began to speak foreign languages and proclaim the good news to all who were in Jerusalem.
The disciples began to introduce some new vocabulary words to the crowds and infused old words with new meaning; words like “Jesus of Nazareth” (2:22), “cross” (2:23), “resurrection” (2:31), “Messiah” (2:31), “repent” (2:38), and “forgiveness of sins” (2:38). Many people responded, and about 3,000 were added to their number (2:41).
Notice, however, that though Acts 2 begins with the disciples going out to speak in new languages, it ends with the formation of a new community that speaks its own distinct “language”. The 3,000 people that joined the church that day were immersed into a community in which the cruciform pattern of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection was normative and formative. They became integrated into a culture in which loving God and loving neighbor were communicated through practices such as engaging the Apostle’s teaching, fellowship, eating together, prayer, sharing property, and being generous.
Revisiting Hauerwas’ framework after my experience in a foreign context, I began to think seriously about how I might become more fluent in speaking Christian. And I began to think about how I might lead my congregation to grow in fluency as well.
Starting on Pentecost Sunday, we began a 10-week series entitled “Practices of Christian Community.” Sermons focused on practices such as prayer, scripture reading, trust, simplicity, forgiveness, lament, forbearance, confession, evangelism, and peacemaking. While this does not exhaust all the Christian practices, the idea was to have a mix of individual, communal, classical, and contextual practices to explore. The congregation was given prompts to engage each practice throughout the week, and some of our small groups incorporated these practices into their times together.
While it was by no means the first time my congregation had thought deeply about what it means to follow Jesus, this series on Christian practice and how those practices immerse us in a community that is becoming fluent in speaking Christian was appreciated and helpful.
As a pastor, and as a disciple of Jesus, I take seriously Hauerwas’ assertion that learning to speak Christian is one of the most crucial tasks for the church today, especially as we consider what it means to speak Christian in relation to other “languages” that are spoken.
When fear of others causes the world to speak the language of hatred and suspicion, love must lead the church to speak the language of hospitality and understanding.
When injustice causes the world to speak the language of violence, God’s vision of shalom must lead the church to speak the language of peace.
When pain causes the world to speak the language of vindictiveness, the cross must lead the church to risk speaking the language of forgiveness.
When the worldly quest for power causes the world to cry foul over the color of coffee cups at Starbucks, the Kingdom quest for reconciliation must lead the church to cry foul at the division and inequalities among people of different colors and races.
And when the world’s speech is bound by things material, the church’s speech must extend to things eternal.
Do we speak Christian? Or do we simply mimic the speech- and thought-patterns of the world around us?
I admit that even in this season of love, joy, and peace, I often find myself discouraged when the church seems to speak the languages of the kingdoms of this world with more eloquence than it speaks the language of the Kingdom of God. And certainly I become discouraged when I realize the ways that I am entrenched in old, death-dealing patterns of speech as well.
Yet if learning the discipling of faith is not just similar to learning another language but is learning another language, as Hauerwas suggests, then Christian community is an integral part of becoming fluent Christian speakers. Therefore, congregations must engage practices that immerse their members in the speech-patterns of the Kingdom; and this certainly extends beyond a 10-week sermon series.
Just this past Sunday at TMC, a child modeled for us what it means to read the word of the Lord joyfully. The week before that our congregation celebrated our annual Harvest Festival by giving food and financial resources to partner organizations who serve those in need in our city. The week before that three people reminded me about our congregation’s long history of supporting refugees and encouraged us to continue that legacy. The month before that my congregation was inspired by a missionary couple who shared about their vision for mission in Istanbul.
On an ongoing basis I see people make sacrifices to support the work of our tutoring program, to engage the hard and holy task of working through conflict together, and to do the ordinary, every-day church work we often take for granted; visiting the sick, praying for those in need, making coffee and washing dishes, knotting comforters, teaching Sunday school, and giving of our tithes and offerings.
These are the things of community that help us to speak Christian in a world of foreign tongues.
We at TMC are not perfect, but we are practicing what it means to speak Christian. Though we may mispronounce some words, and though there are some concepts that are hard for us to comprehend, we are growing in our level of fluency.
Many of us have been speaking Christian for quite some time, others are just starting out. Yet no matter where we are on our level of fluency, it is good to keep in mind that we are all learning to speak Christian as a second language. There is only one who spoke Christian as his first language, and this is Christ himself, whose coming into this world we contemplate during this season of Advent.
In this season that we reflect on God’s word becoming flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, let us also reflect on what it would mean to receive Christ the way one would acquire fluency in a second language. Let us continue to learn the vocabulary and grammar of our faith while immersing ourselves in the community in which the Christian language is lived out and spoken.
Though our “speaking Christian” may always be done with a bit of an accent, may we use this time to watch and wait and to learn and grow in our ability to speak fluently so that God’s word may become flesh in our lives and in our communities until he comes again.
Joel Shenk lives in Toledo, OH with his wife and two daughters. Joel has been the pastor at Toledo Mennonite Church since 2010 and is a graduate from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, CA. He loves reading and talking about the church and mission, and he is inspired by the good news of the Kingdom of God that Jesus preached. Lately, he has been exploring the practice of centering prayer.