Reclaiming Old Language

During a recent clergy meeting, I asked a question about how other clergy handle questions from parishioners that convey either a lack of understanding of a sermon, or even worse than that, when a parishioner takes the complete opposite of the intended message. In the ensuing conversation, one of my colleagues told me that I was “too controlling” in my desire to preach and teach my congregation.
I’ll admit that there’s some truth to that, but I also found in her comment, and in the nods of agreement from others around the table, another truth that seems to me to be even more important, a truth that gets at some of the difficulties that we in the declining mainline Protestant churches are having. In our efforts at extravagant welcome and in our overt tolerance for a diversity of opinions, perspectives and beliefs, it seems to me that we have missed, and are missing, a critical piece of what we should be doing: reshaping the language of Christianity.
As preachers and teachers of the Gospel, I believe that it is our calling—in the more progressive and liberal wings of Protestantism—to be more determined and conscientious in reshaping and reclaiming Christian language, beliefs and theology.
In a recent conversation with an Old South parishioner who’s been at Old South just a few years longer than I’ve been and who came to Old South from a much more conservative background, I found this person struggling to ask a question that had clearly been on her mind for years. Had she somehow managed to miss the Sundays when I preached the “salvation message” and offered something akin to an altar call?
I’ve been pastor and teacher of Old South for seven years. I was both surprised, and not so surprised, by this question. I couldn’t believe that it had taken so long for her to ask it, but at the same time, I wanted to ask her if she had been listening to my sermons over the years. I wondered not only if I had ever led her to believe that I subscribed to a theology of the “salvation message,” but how had she missed all of my messages that described a theology quite different from one that required a personal, saving relationship with a personal Savior?
Sunday after Sunday, sermon after sermon, how had she missed that I am a different kind of Christian than the kind that she grew up with?
We in the more progressive, liberal side of mainline Protestantism have been quite good at changing and reshaping Christian practices. We’ve opened ourselves to the leadership of women, the full participation of homosexuals and transgendered folk, and a welcome of the divorced, etc. But, we haven’t been very good at reclaiming the language and reshaping beliefs and theology of Christianity.
I don’t claim my own leadership and welcome homosexuals just because I’ve become soft in my standards. I believe that I am well-grounded in the Bible and in tune with the movement of the Holy Spirit.
As a pastor and teacher, I find that I need to be more open about what I am doing in trying to re-train my parishioners, especially those who have a more conservative or a very different background. While I want people to feel welcome, and welcome to wrestle with big, and little, questions of faith and belief, I also want to help them lay claim to a new awareness, appreciation and understanding, that is solidly grounded in scripture and theology.
Clergy must be more willing to guide and shape a new way, with new definitions of old language, and to bring new life to old ways of doing and believing. And, then perhaps our parishioners will find the grace and confidence to share that message, to share that good news, and to find a new and wonderful breath of life in the old mainline.

About smaxreisert

I'm a United Church of Christ pastor serving the small, faithful Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Hallowell, Maine. I was ordained in Massachusetts in 1995, moved to Maine in 1997 and have served the Hallowell church since 2005.
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