Mind your language!

I wonder if you have ever been overheard saying something you wish you hadn’t said?

As a schoolboy, many years ago, I was running over to join the queue for dinner. I took a look through the window and whatever was on people’s plates didn’t meet with my approval. With my nose pressed to the glass I groaned and said to myself what I thought of the dinner. Only the thing was, I wasn’t speaking to myself! I felt a tap on my shoulder and it was the teacher on duty. She said, ‘Now, Jonathan, I know you may not like what’s  for dinner this evening, but there’s no need to use that kind of language about it. Please, mind your language.’

I wanted us to think for a moment or two about the language we use in the ‘church without walls’. Now that we are recording services, I’m much more conscious of the language we use in church and how it sounds to those who don’t attend regularly. 

When I trained for ordination, my first training rector knew I was nervous about preaching my first sermon. He invited me to come and have tea with his family and then preach the sermon in an empty church with just him listening. As I launched into the sermon, he stopped me after 2 sentences and asked me what I meant? I explained it to him and he said, ‘Why don’t you say it like that?’ He stopped me quite a few more times as I think I was using big theological words, like salvation and redemption, almost like I was trying to impress everyone with my learning and theological vocabulary, rather than trying to connect the Word of God to people’s lives.

It was a really valuable and important lesson. Our words are important. In recorded services I’ve been trying to introduce Bible readings to give a bit of context or explain what’s been going on or what they are about. Some might call that dumbing down, others would say it’s helping your guests tune into what’s happening. You can make up your own mind!

I’m conscious, though, that there are people who are tuning in who may not be used to going to church and all of this is very new to them. A few years ago, I took part in an experiment to try to identify with those who are not used to going to church. I went into a Bookie’s shop in the city centre to place a bet for the first time.

It was around Christian Aid Week and I made a little deal with the Lord and said, if I were to win, Christian Aid would be the beneficiaries. I felt very nervous and, although there were only one or two people there, I made my way to the counter. I wanted to place a bet on the World Snooker Championship as I didn’t know anything about horse racing. The girl behind the counter showed me what to do and, by the time I came out, I was shaking. It wasn’t my usual environment and I didn’t feel comfortable at all. I didn’t win, as it happens, but it was a good life lesson about how stressful church going must feel for those visiting for occasions like funerals or baptisms or weddings. How do you blend in, how do you know when to sit or stand? How do you make sense of the singing and all the things being said if you’re not familiar with any of it? Our words are important, as is our attitude towards visitors, whether in real time when we are in the building, or online as people tune in to our services.

How do we show them the ropes in a non-threatening way, how do we explain what’s  going on and make the experience enlightening and encouraging and perhaps whet the appetite for more?

Like many people who heard the announcements yesterday about a pathway to reopening churches, I welcomed those thoughts, but with a fair degree of caution. A part of me wondered if they were the thoughts of a senior civil servant who themselves isn’t used to going to church. Having spent almost £25,000 in recent years on improving our sound systems in the hall and the church, I did raise an eyebrow at how Drive Through Church might work in practice? Where would anyone leading the service position themselves in the car park? Even if a third of our regular congregation came to church in their cars, you wouldn’t get more than about 15 cars in at any one time and how do you observe social distancing? Just wondering!

The Select Vestry are trustees of the church. They, and I, have a responsibility of governance and a duty of care to all who come so, until clear instructions and guidelines are issued and we are confident we can follow those guidelines to ensure people’s safety and protection, we cannot, in conscience, put people at risk. We welcome the possibility but, at this point, we need to know how it will work in practice and what we need to put in place when people are allowed to gather again for private prayer or corporate worship.

Over the coming days there will be a recorded service for Ascension Thursday available on the church’s service phone line (028 9344 7225) and there will be recorded messages from the Bishop and His wife and other church leaders on 028 9124 9395 as we enter into the 10 days of prayer and events for a spiritual harvest in our diocese. We are longing to see more people experiencing God’s presence and His love in their lives at this time of real challenge and difficulty for so many. Please try to tune in via the phone number or through the church’s website and Facebook page to keep abreast of special events.

The bishop will address young adults on Friday. His wife, Hilary, will speak to women on Saturday and different church leaders from different denominations will lead our prayers at Sunday’s service.

Look forward to speaking again soon.

Much love to everyone.