Wincing. Cringing. Despair. Head in hands. Spine-tingling embarrassment. I have to confess I’ve experienced all of these emotions in the last week and, for once, the cause is not my futile attempts to get my vocals to harmonise with the musicians at church.
It all started with benign amusement, observing a bearded gentleman in the back of a camera shot on BBC News during a piece about energy prices. He thought it a pertinent moment to hold up a warning to the viewers to “Repent or Perish”.
The BBC’s Big Questions debate about the End Times only exacerbated my discomfiture. This slowly evolved into much worse as I observed a number of Christians having a rather fruity public debate on Twitter over the weekend, and I’d better not say any more for fear of being guilty of the very thing I’m writing about.
Let me pause for an illustration. If I was moving to another part of the world where English wasn’t the native tongue – whether it be to start a business, plant a church or simply live in a new community – the first thing I would do would be to learn the language. If I simply wandered round a French village expecting everyone to talk like me, gesture like me and understand all the nuances of the way that I speak, I’d be considered at best odd and at worst disrespectful and rude.
It is very important to understand that the way people speak today has significantly changed from even 10 years ago, let alone 30 or 50. If people of faith don’t learn to communicate in accessible, comprehensible ways and if the language that we use hasn’t evolved from the way we would engage even a decade ago, then people will (quite rightly) think exactly the same as they would of myself sauntering round Le Petit Village asking for pork scratchings and a pint of London Pride, all the while singing God Save The Queen.
The three big tectonic-plate shifts in our culture have been technological, sociological and philosophical. They are more substantial than I can do justice to here. The Christian voice is just one of many now; post-modernism abhors abrasive certainty and overconfidence in one’s faith position; conversations that were once private are now out there online for all to see. Put more simply, if you’re tweeting things like “Repent or Perish,” or “Wasn’t the weight of the glory of the Lord wonderful in worship today?” or “Let’s take the city for God” or anything closely resembling “My position on this subject is quite obviously right” then people will understandably block us from their news feed and maybe even discount us as loonies. I know I will.
And before you think I’m jabbing a critique at 70-year-old Joan from Dorset, who’s embarking on her first foray into the online world and espousing views embraced by her generation, then I think that those who are sometimes younger and often have both more influence and eloquence can be even more guilty. I’ve observed individuals who ‘get’ the culture and yet provoke unhelpful responses with bullish statements in 140 characters that simply rile people. They may not be saying things that grate with wider society, but they can display a deeper insensitivity that goads the very comments I’m critiquing.
A soupcon of humility all round would not only oil some important conversations between people of faith, but also facilitate the way that the Church seeks to engage with those who are not part of it. In fact, rather than a soupcon, make that a barrel-load.
So here’s my plea to those of us who have or want a voice on matters of faith: study culture; learn the language and how it’s evolved; practice speaking with humility. Begin with “I may not be right on this” or “There are people more intelligent than me who disagree,” or “Here’s the conclusion I’ve come to, but of course I may be wrong”. Even if it seems like we’re speaking “Pigeon English” for a while, any attempt at trying to engage in conversations with others positively, understanding others’ perspectives and thinking hard about how we come across, is likely to be appreciated in most part.
It will make us more bearable, soften our approachability, cause us to be more considerate about how we communicate what we really think and may even earn us a hearing in some quarters.
To return to an earlier analogy, I might even find that village culture has good things to teach me too, and if I’m able to converse with locals over pain au chocolats, fromage and vin, then I think that would be better for everyone.
Of course, I might not be right on any of this.