‘‘We need to learn to speak in the ‘Vulgar’ tongue to ‘Vulgar’ people’
Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer (in his preface to the ‘Great Bible)
In these 21st century times the church faces the challenge of doing mission to its own culture, a culture (I have described in another article as ‘Morphtopia’) in which there are ongoing changes in the meaning of words, the proliferation of world views and the relativisation of Truth into ‘truths’. These all have profound implications for our society but most importantly for the way in which we need to proclaim the gospel to that society.
The Gospel is both the Word in the person of Jesus and the ‘words’ needed to communicate that person and his work to a lost culture. So ‘Communication’ is of the essence of the missionary task and language is essential to it. However, Communication requires both Transmission and Reception. Without the latter, no matter how much gospel proclamation and ‘sharing’ takes place, communication doesn’t. In the (Australian) church there is often a great emphasis on transmission but little analysis as to why there is so little reception, and therefore communication.
It is as though the church persists in using an Analogue transmitter but fails to understand that no one has an Analogue receiver anymore. The general community (of Morphtopia) is not only not tuned in but increasingly can’t tune in to our gospel transmissions!
This is to a large extent due to number of problems with the language we use-
• The language comprehension level of most church services is around year 13, yet the level for an increasingly dumbing down culture is more like year 7.
• Words are becoming increasingly like a slippery bar of soap in the shower in terms of grasping their meaning. For example, we cannot assume that our ‘Truth’ statements, once accepted without question, will be received as such. It is now necessary not just to assume a word’s meaning but in in many cases the need is to argue for and justify that meaning.
For example, imagine a box labelled ‘Marriage’. Up to 15 or so years ago if that box was opened the universal expectation was that inside we would find a man and a woman. Now the opening of the box labelled ‘marriage’ can reveal any combination of genders (in the western world anyway), and no doubt before long a multiplicity of persons in any combination.
• Marshall McLuhan’s ‘The Medium is the Message’ statement is true in the area of gospel communication, or at least to the extent that the medium of the message conditions its accessibility. McLuhan’s point is that the medium influences how the message is perceived. The forms we use as vehicles of the gospel are still such as to communicate and reinforce a stereotyped and very unattractive image of what the church stands for. This then hinders the cultural accessibility of our message such that the more the church continues with its standard, 20th century forms of gospel transmission the more the cultural gap widens between it and society, and the more society’s spiritual deafness deepens.
• We must take Thomas Cranmer’s advice and learn to speak in the ‘Vulgar’ tongue to ‘Vulgar’ people, that is in the ‘street languages’ of the day to the ‘common’ people of the day. Instead we in effect say to the lost “learn our one, singular language then we can speak to you”. Problem is they won’t!
• We must learn to both think and speak in the multiplicity of thought languages of the cultural mosaic, because how people think conditions how they use and receive words, even when apparently speaking English. Yet church-speak, and the language of most church members, continues to be conditioned by one singular traditional ‘church-think’.
• As the ABC’s managing director Michelle Guthrie said in another context-
“The idea that the customer has to come and find you
and must play solely within your boundaries is now obsolete”
This is also true in the areas of both language and communication, and so we cannot expect the mosaic of pagan tribes to make the effort seek the particular gospel ‘wavelength’ the church traditionally ‘transmits’ on. Rather, the church must not only journey into the physical localities, the alien universes, of the lost (the primary basis of the Unbounded Church concept), but also move into the realms of their alien mind-maps and the languages conditioned by those mind-maps.
It appears that the church generally confuses ‘Transmission’ of the gospel with ‘Reception’. There is in many ways a great deal of ‘Transmission’ of the gospel (in sermons, outreach events, school and youth ministries etc), but a miniscule amount of ‘Reception’. The now chronic result is therefore a miniscule amount of ‘Communication’ also.
And so, it’s vital to remember that Transmission requires Reception to turn it into Communication. Much more effort, flexibility and creativity needs to be put into the forms, the media and the language(s) of our gospel Transmissions to make it much easier for the mosaic of tribes to receive them. Indeed, mission and its methods needs to become much more ‘Vulgar’!