Implicit Theology

March 9, 2014, Psalm 85:8-13, Acts 8:26-35

Last week I said I planned to preach on a very personal topic: our faith. Specifically, I want to address how hard it is for most of us to share the faith we have in Jesus Christ with other people. For many years I have used the term “theolinguaphobia” which means “fear of talking about God.” We are a faithful congregation. We are loyal followers of Jesus Christ, but almost all of us find it very hard to put our faith into words that someone else might find helpful. We are not alone, far from it. Years ago, historian Martin Marty wrote a book called, “A Nation of Behavers.” Many, many people assumed he meant “believers,” but he did not. American Protestants, he discovered go to worship faithfully, support their churches financially, teach Sunday school and support mission work. We do all these things without being very good at sharing our faith in words. This book came out in 1980, less than a generation after the peak year of membership of Presbyterian churches in the United States. Since 1980 we have remained reluctant to talk about our faith to one another, let alone to witness to strangers. And the young people who grew up in churches like ours are less likely to remain active in church than they used to be. This is a problem that is squeezing American Protestant churches and forcing us to take a very hard look at what we do and why we do it.

When I was working on my doctor of ministry, I described this situation to one of my professors and she said that I would have to find this congregation’s “implicit theology.” What she meant was, since most of our members have never written personal faith statements that is we’ve never written down in words what it means to us personally to follow Jesus Christ, I would have to look at what we do, how we live out our faith, before I could make our theology explicit. What we do tells us what we believe. What we do is how we express what we believe. Actions precede words. This all makes sense to me, and as I was looking more deeply into this idea, I heard this wonderful sketch on the radio. Garrison Keillor really captures our reticence to share our faith. This was aired on “A Prairie Home Companion” in 2008

The Lake Woebegone Lutheran Ladies’ luncheon was on Wednesday. And Jessica who’s the intern pastor, from Luther Seminary was supposed to do the program for the luncheon, she forgot all about it until she arrived. So she had to make it up. She stood up after the lunch and she said, “How about we take turns one by one standing up and just talking about the joys and the problems of the Christian life?” There was a profound silence. We don’t display ourselves in this town. There’s so little privacy, we cling to whatever we have. We’re not about to stand and talk about the problems of the Christian life in front of other people who know our problems all too well. She coached them, she said, “We did this once in our dormitory, our junior year at Concordia. We opened up to each other and it was such a life-changing experience.”

They’re not gonna do it. Their eyes are locked on their own shoes. They are staring at the floor. She was sort of slowly dying in front of them, when the pastor’s wife, Judy Inkviss, stood up and said, “This may seem awfully trivial but what I think of when I think of the problems and the joys of the Christian life—I think about making a salad, making food that everyone will like and yet that’s interesting, like this shrimp salad that I made for sitne de mai this year and I maybe shouldn’t have put wasabe in it. Maybe I put too much in but everybody helped themselves to a little bit and then I noticed that most of it got scraped into the garbage pail. So that was kind of an experience for me,” she said.

And now that she had opened the floor to the discussion of salads, women stood up one after the other and talked about creamed salads and macaroni salads and potato salads and family and whose salad was better and Marilyn Tolliver got up to talk about food poisoning and the potato salad her sister-in-law had brought and it sat in the rear window of the car for too long and she knew that there was something wrong with it and she knew it and so she did not eat any, but she allowed other people to eat the potato salad her own family, loved ones going through the humiliation of public vomiting. No time to go anywhere, just right out there in front of other people…and she started to weep and other women wept to think of this humiliation and there was hugging and there was solidarity on the subject of salads. These are, these are the people I come from. [broadcast on June 14, 2008]

The Lutheran ladies couldn’t talk about their faith, even at a church gathering. But there was hugging and solidarity over salads. I do not wish to make fun of Lutheran ladies, because let’s be honest, most of us would find it easier talking about food than our faith.

Still, as I said before, we are people of faith, but most of us have been active in church all our lives, so active that our week feels out of kilter is we miss worship on Sunday morning. While that’s true for many of us, it does not really help someone who has no experience with worship to understand how we benefit from coming to church. I think an analogy might make the problem I see clearer. I love my morning coffee. It’s part of my whole morning routine. I start the water boiling, read the paper for about ten minutes, pour the water into the coffee pot, wait four minutes, then pour the coffee. I take my coffee to my special chair and by that time I’m ready to finish the Jumble. My day does not feel right if something throws off that routine. If the paper hasn’t arrived, my whole routine is off. I love my routine. And I confess an addiction to coffee, so I suffer physically without it, but how do I describe, or better still, get someone to try my routine? Someone who does not drink coffee, someone who has never gotten the habit of reading a printed newspaper? How do you share an experience like attending church, an experience that you find life-giving and necessary to someone else? This is hard for everyone! I find myself tongue-tied when people ask me pointed questions about what I believe. Here’s part of a blog post by my colleague in ministry, Gail Irwin:

I once had occasion to meet with a potential confirmation student at a Subway restaurant. He was 6 feet tall, dressed like a punk and played in a rock band. I bought him a sandwich and tried to explain why he should invest two years of Sunday afternoons studying the art of Christian discipleship. I suddenly realized, sitting across from him, that after 15 years in ministry, I still didn't know how to witness to someone about my faith….

If we wonder why our churches are shriveling, maybe one simple reason is because we don't know how to encourage evangelism and discipleship. For our parents’ and grandparents’ generations, this was done by procreation and acculturation into a society that transmitted Christian doctrine and practice through familiar cultural rituals. For some churches today, it is done with guilt and coercion. These methods of spreading the gospel no longer work for many of us in the Mainline traditions.

Madeline L'Engle once wrote, "We do not draw people to Christ by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it."  [from the blog "Freelancepastor@wordpress.com, posted 1/14/2014, "Whose Transformation?" The Reverend L. Gail Irwin]

Those insights give me real hope for the Church. We can make the church attractive by showing a light, perhaps I should say by “reflecting” a light that we know is already in our hearts. That means we should continue to live the implicit faith we are already living, but I do not believe that is enough.

We’ve got the example of Philip in our New Testament lesson this morning. Philip was ready to explain his faith to someone who was eager to learn and understand. I imagine he had what I’ve heard called an “elevator speech” to share with the man from Ethiopia. If you’ve got an opportunity to share a great idea, imagine that you’re on a 90 second elevator ride with someone. 90 seconds isn’t a very long time. You want to make sure to include the very most important things when you have such a limited time. You’ve got to be both thorough and concise. Most important, though, you’ve got to be ready.

Imagine you’re about to get on an elevator and the person standing next to you asks, “What church do you go to? And why do you go there?”

Feeling tongue-tied? Feeling inadequate to answer these questions? That’s ok, for now just think about them. What would you say?

I’ve got two bits of advice, besides being ready to respond when the opportunity arises.

First, speak from your own experience. Be as explicit as you can about your own feelings and experiences. No one will say, “Wow, I really want to go to your church!” if you start by telling them that Presbyterians subscribe to ten statements of faith that are found in our denomination’s Book of Confessions. But if you say that the worship service feeds you spiritually, or challenges you to grow in faith or gives you energy and direction that you take when you leave…if you can convey excitement, the words you say will not matter that much. And be specific.

Second, and here’s another challenging, I mean, difficult, thing for a lot of us, trust that the Holy Spirit is with you as you speak. I love some verses from this morning’s psalm, because they remind me that sharing my faith is not only about me: “Let me hear what God will speak, for the Lord speaks peace to all people.”

I want to encourage each of you, because you are all people of faith. We are not used to witnessing, or sharing our faith, we are certainly not people who evangelize by approaching strangers on the street or ringing their doorbells. Still, we all have a vital faith, an active faith, a dynamic faith. The challenge for us is to take what we do—our implicit, enacted faith—and put it into words that others can understand. And one final thing, it gets easier to talk naturally about your faith the more you do it. I promise, it gets easier and you’ll get better at it too. So practice your elevator speech and be ready when you get a chance to speak. Amen.