Andrew Sullivan’s “The Dish” featured a piece yesterday on how radio programming initiatives are keeping alive the dying minority languages of New Zealand’s Maori peoples: “In the Maori community of New Zealand, for example, the combination of 21 radio stations and rigorous early childhood immersion programs have brought Maori-languages speakers from an all-time low of 24,000 in the 1980s to 131,000 in 2006, according to Mark Camp, deputy executive director at Cultural Survival.”
It strikes me that the church in the West must relearn a lost language, too. Somewhere along the way, the language of self-sacrifice, of the costliness of following Jesus, of the kingdom of God and our part in it, of the church as a true community of believers called and sent out to be secretive co-conspirators on behalf of that kingdom, has been lost.
The biblical association here is of a person scattering seeds or sprinkling yeast into dough. These images to which Jesus appeals in Scripture embody the older language of a people content to be, in a sense, “invisible”: they are ordinary, humble servants conscripted in God’s mission, rather than mega-church stars and celebrity figures with glitzy sermon series, loud, self-righteous proclamations about “right” and “wrong,” and all the money and political clout to show for it.
But these days I hear a whole lot of newer, trendier languages. About church growth and strategic initiatives. About how to fill the pews and attract new members. About how to be relevant or hip (when, if there were anyone more marginalized or irrelevant by our own cultural standards, it would be Jesus Himself). About how to, with more money, political lobbying and savvy media relations, reclaim the church’s “pride of place” in our society. (David Barton’s recent book, The Jefferson Lies, is one example of this kind of shameless pandering.)
So many of us have come to believe that speaking this new language is what it means to belong to the church; and, so many of us have simply checked out, because we’re tired of a language that has jarred us, scarred us, hurt us and assumed we’re too stupid to know better.
But we’re better than that. The “holy, catholic and apostolic church” we claim to believe in whenever we recite the Apostle’s Creed is better than that. We need the old, ancient mother tongue- the one our earliest ancestors spoke, the one that sounds foreign in our culture, but which God, in the person of God’s Holy Spirit, can help us relearn. And we need leaders in the church (pastors, teachers, evangelists, prophets, and apostles) who will act as directors of “cultural survival,” who will teach us the rhythms and cadences of that lost and dying language, so that we can become fluent in it once again.