As I read news items online or in the newspaper, it seems not a week goes by without some poll telling of how fewer Americans, especially younger generations, identify as people of faith. For those of us in the church, this is sad news, for we want our neighbors to find the home within the faith that we have found. This news of fewer people connected with the faith is also challenging news, the challenge being: how do we communicate the faith to those who may show no interest?
No small challenge this is, for there is, within the Christian faith, a unique vocabulary of faith. It is a vocabulary containing words that may rarely be spoken beyond gatherings of the faithful. While there may have been a time when we could assume the meaning of these words within our vocabulary of faith was known, it appears we live in such a time when such understanding is no more.
I speak of words such as salvation. I speak of words such as redemption. I speak of words such as sacrament. Even words that are not necessarily religious in nature are words we cannot assume are words understood: grace, forgiveness, peace, blessing, justice, righteousness.
Again, when research indicates fewer Americans align themselves with communities of faith, it is a great challenge for those of us who are leaders of the faith to communicate the faith. Fortunately, there is found within our scriptures helpful models as to how to share the faith.
We look at the gospels and their accounts of the ministry of Jesus; not once do we find Jesus speaking words such as “expiation” or “propitiation” or “sacrament.” Instead, when Jesus wishes to speak of God’s desire to bless all God has made, Jesus tells stories; parables; showing the nature of God and God’s desire not to lose even one God has made.
So Jesus tells of a father rejoicing at the return of his lost son. He speaks of a shepherd who leaves behind 99 sheep, so great is his desire to find the one who is lost. When Jesus wishes to speak of what makes a person right with God, he does not issue some doctrine of righteousness, he instead tells of reward given to those who feed the hungry, clothe the needy, give water to the thirsty, visit the prisoner, welcome the stranger.
For those of us who wish to communicate the faith, we do well to learn from the communication skills of Jesus.
We also do well to learn from those such as the Apostle Paul (whom we cannot assume is known to everyone). Paul, who came to faith in a dramatic fashion, was moved to share this faith with those who knew nothing of Jesus.
But instead of cajoling and twisting arms and threatening so as to compel belief, Paul respected his audience, tried to build bridges, to find common ground as a means of inviting faith. As this worked for Paul, it appears those of us who share the faith of Paul would do well to follow his example.
I remember hearing a leader in the faith say, “The gospel begins at the ear, not at the mouth.”
What this leader was saying is this: “If I want persons to hear my words of faith, I need to begin with concern for them and their ability to hear, not with the desire to impress them with any speaking skills I may possess.”
I remember these words and find them to be of help as I think of reaching my neighbors with the good news of faith. I remember that I came to belief by the faithful witness of those to whom I mattered.
In similar fashion, I hope, by way of my witness, to say to all: You matter to God. You matter more than you know.
Keith Ritchie is pastor of First United Methodist Church in Martinsville. For further information about the MCCC, call 276-632-6422.