I grew up with parents who were ministers. I went to a Christian university. I went to Divinity School. I am a fairly avid reader. These things have combined to give me a terrible tendency to think that people know more about the Bible and theology than they actually do. There have been so many times when I have used a word that nobody in the room understood.
For whatever reason, I have come to a point where I assume that people know what words like sanctification and exegesis mean. Does this mean that people are inferior because they lack knowledge? Does it mean that they have failed to become educated on these important matters? No, it means that I am weird, a good weird, but weird. It means I have been fortunate to have been able to dedicate a chunk of my life to understanding what these terms mean and to learn the language of theology and Biblical studies. It also means that I have been given the honor and responsibility to become the educator and explainer.
It’s funny how easily we can forget that there was a time when we didn’t have the answers either. Now that I have two kids, I find myself answering people’s baby questions more often. When new parents ask me about sleep schedules or when to start potty training I have to remind myself that, at one time, these questions would have been as foreign to me as asking me to name the official flower of Lichtenstein (Gentiana, apparently). I remember seeking to be licensed by our church while in college and not knowing how to answer a single question on the theology questionnaire that the church asked me to fill out (it was probably good that I was not licensed at that time). Some things are still necessary to teach, even if you have already mastered them yourself.
What I need to remember is that people experience the same thing with the Bible. They simply don’t know what we are talking about. I’m not talking about stories in the Bible like David showing grace to Mephibosheth. I’m talking about stories like Adam and Eve. People may know the names, but often they don’t know the details or the significance of the story. Working with students has been a huge help in getting me to teach the Bible without presuming that everyone knows the background details. Is it the people’s fault? No, but if they are willing to learn, then we need to be ready for the task.
While I don’t quite grasp all that the term implies, I have read often that we are living in a post-Christian era in the United States. Familiarity with Christianity can no longer be presumed. In prior generations people were often exposed to the stories and teachings of the Bible. Today, it is not surprising to talk with someone who has never heard anything about the Bible. A few weeks ago we had a Chinese student come to our Sunday morning program which was the first time she had ever been to a church. It was amazing to watch one of our students show her what a Bible was and explain what it was all about. Unfortunately, the girl was not able to have a Bible at home because her parents did not allow it. What a great reminder that we are often talking to students and adults who have hardly any foundation when it comes to the Bible.
Something that we have started to do is to use our Sunday morning times to go over basic theological things like sin, the Holy Spirit, and why read the Bible. This has allowed our students to begin to develop a vocabulary of faith that they can build on. We also make sure that we never teach a story from the Bible as being just a story. Instead we are quick to point out that each story illustrates a theological truth. We do these things because we know that it is so important to work with students on their level. We also do it because if students cannot explain why they believe the things that they say they believe, their faith is not likely to endure.
An interesting exercise that will help us in our task of speaking on everyone’s level is to go back and listen to your talks and count how many times you used a phrase or word that only a well-churched individual would grasp. It’s likely that you are unintentionally using a language that is foreign to many of your people.