One of the books I’m reading now is Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic. At the beginning of the second chapter, leading into a discussion of the much-misunderstood word “sin,” Spufford says:
“One of the major obstacles to communicating what belief feels like is that I’m not working with a blank slate. Our culture is smudged over with half-legible religious scribbling. The vocabulary that used to describe religious emotions hasn’t gone away, or sunk into an obscurity from which you could carefully reintroduce it, giving a little explanation as each unfamiliar new/old term emerged. Instead, it’s still in circulation, but repurposed, with new meanings generated by new usages, meanings that make people think that they know what believers are talking about when they really, really don’t.”
Part of this problem lies in the vast victory Christianity had in Western culture. The church was dominant for so long and over so much territory, that Christian vocabulary and concepts have filtered through the culture and language. The Christian faith, though tied to a vocabulary, is more than that vocabulary. A network of practices done in community sustain that vocabulary and make sense of it. As the practices have faded, the strength of the terms has become diluted. As Spufford notes, we continue to use the same words, but the broader culture, separated from the institutional home of those words, no longer understands those words the same way we do. Evangelism, the act of communicating the good news of Jesus so that people can hear it as good news, will require us to pay closer attention to language than we have in the past. We cannot simply assume that other English speakers understand what we say, even if they use the same words.
But the problem is larger than that. Word meanings have shifted not only between the Christian community and those outside the community, but within the Christian community as a whole. Words like “kingdom,” “salvation,” “sin,” “righteousness,” etc. are contested within the church as much as they are between the church and external interlocutors. In the United Methodist Church we say that our mission is to “Make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” Even within the narrow community of the United Methodist Church those words and the concepts they convey are contested. We no longer have a shared vision of what a disciple is, or of the end toward which we are transforming the world.