Insider Language and the Mission of God
April 7, 2018
Through much of middle and high school, I woke up every morning and had my quiet time watching Craig Kilborn on ESPN's Sportscenter. I could tell you every stat about every baseball, basketball and football player. I knew the language of just about every major sport. When I would watch sports with friends who weren't that interested in whatever sport was being played, I would seek to explain the language of the sport to them (i.e. the rules, the terminology and the strategies). In my late teens, I lost interest with much of that--turning my attention to girls, music and drugs. I learned to speak the language of the world regarding those things. When I wanted to indoctrinate someone in any of those things, I taught them the language associated with those things.
After I was converted, a seminarian welcomed me into his home and mentored me. He used the language of the academy and the church--language with which I was unfamiliar (words like epistemology, dialectic, hermeneutics, eschatology and homiletics). He spoke about the Westminster Assembly, the Auburn affirmation and Mercersburg theology. When he prayed he used biblical language with which I was not familiar (e.g. "Oh that you would rend the heavens," "put a hedge of protection around," etc). This was a strange new world for me and one with which I was not entirely comfortable. I felt like I was treading water to stay afloat miles out in an ocean of unfamiliar language. I went to a theological conference not long after I was converted and everything I heard flew 30,000 feet over my head because of the dialect. I left feeling discouraged--wondering why those I was around now weren't speaking language that my unbelieving friends could understand. I was zealous to see my old friends come to know Christ and I concluded that this was not the way it would happen.
Over the next two years, I grew in my appreciation for biblical and theological language because I was studying God's word and reading the great works of church history. I realized that there was a rich spiritual heritage to so much of the vocabulary of the church. Still, I wondered why there was a reticence on the part of some of those from whom I was learning to modernize the archaic language of older theological works and to break down theological concepts. I came to love the historic doctrinal statements of faith (e.g. The Westminster Confession of Faith, The Heidelberg Catechism, The Canons of Dort, etc.) but couldn't understand why we wouldn't modernize some of the language in order to make it understandable to new converts. I sensed something of a reverse chronological snobbery. For many of those with whom I was surrounded, older was better, historical was more spiritual.
I labored to learn this language of the church throughout my time in seminary and continued to grow in my understanding of the value of theological language. After all, everyone packages knowledge; and, the more carefully we systematize truth, the more categories and words we will necessarily employ. I slowly sought to help bring others along to understand the language of the church. Occasionally, I would catch myself using insider theological terminology in order to impress others; but, on the whole, I was simply excited about being able to share biblical and theological truths with those who knew very little.
When I moved to Philadelphia after seminary to be an intern at a church in the city, I sought to learn the language of my neighbors. I lived in an extremely multi-ethinic community and was surrounded by the educated and uneducated, as well as the rich and the poor. On account of much of my experiences in life, I have always been able to adapt to different cultural settings quite easily. My wife and I got to know many of our neighbors, invited them into our home and sought to share the Gospel with them. I would sit out on my front step and bind old theological works as a hobby. One of my neighbors introduced me to another neighbor who happened to use antiquarian book leather to make jewelry for Donna Karan. He and I struck up a friendship. I would give him antiquarian theological book covers and would seek to share the Gospel with him by means of sharing my testimony every chance I could. As we talked, I would mention things like the Westminster Confession of Faith and would use theological phraseology. He would sometimes stop me and ask me to explain the language of the church and church history. In many respects, it was very much like explaining the language of sports to someone who is not familiar with, but is desirous of learning, it. This particular neighbor came to Tenth Presbyterian Church to hear me preach and I gave him a copy of Tim Keller's The Prodigal God.
One of my friends at Tenth Presbyterian Church was working in the IT department at the University of Pennsylvania. Eager to learn coding, I asked if he would teach me some basic formulas. I realized that coding was a language in its own right. I once told my friend, "I'm envious of the way in which you understand the language of coding," to which he responded, "Don't be. I'm envious of the way you know the language of God." He was, of course, referring to the Scriptures and the theological framing of biblical concepts. This was a helpful analogy for me as I wrestled with the right use of language toward those both within and outside the church.
When I moved back to Southeast Georgia in 2009 to plant New Covenant, I had to learn the language of a culture with which I was now unfamiliar. It was a very different mission field from that in Philadelphia. I had to labor to break down biblical and theological truths in a distinctive cultural language. While not wanting to shy away from theological and historical terminology, I wanted to explain the words that I used in the particular cultural context.
I still feel a tension between using insider language and methodically bringing others along in the language of God and the church. On one hand, theological and historical terminology can become Shibboleths that keep others uninformed and disengaged. On the other hand, the language of the church gives us the opportunity to share the language of God in thoughtful, educated and engaging ways. We need to labor to ask ourselves how we are employing terminology that is unique to the worlds of theology, philosophy and sociology as we seek to bring the Gospel to outsiders who don't speak the language of the church. Whatever else we do, we must be unashamed to teach the language of God from Scripture. Christians speak the language of God in a foreign land. After all, there is no greater language that any of us must learn to speak.