Being Understood

by Andrew Pratt.

Early in January this year I watched a programme in which Gareth Malone (of Military Wives fame) went into a prison to draw together young men to form a choir. No one wanted to sing anything except ‘Drill’. Its themes were angry and violent. This music was new to me. It is an extreme example, but illustrates just how far I am culturally from many young people. Some years ago I read that there is no language that can be used in worship that can be understood by those outside the church. Such a change, it was suggested, would reduce worship to such an extent that it would no longer carry any value or make any sense.

I believe that that is a nonsense. But how can we enable worship to be understood? And is it worth it? Liberation theologians, pioneer ministers and progressive theologians have explored this. In every case there has been resistance. It will not be ‘authentic’, ‘it’s not like church’, that is ‘not like Our church’. At worst the theology is ‘faulty’.

Gareth Malone offers a lesson for us all. Working with the men in prison he had individual conversations with them. It took time, effort and a lot of listening. What happened was that the men began putting their life stories, reflections and feelings into poetic rhythm. Many of these were aggressive and violent. Malone encouraged them to wish and hope, to express in the same sort of verse their future expectations. Then he asked how they might want these expectations to change. He encouraged them to sing their own hopes in their own context with their own language. This was not translation of something foreign, but SELF expression. Malone had to move out of his comfort zone. There was something incarnational going on here. The musical tenor of the accompaniment changed. There was negotiation of the texts and music that the men were writing. The end product was still something that the men could own. They were not forced into a normative belief that they would find hard to accept.

So how could this affect our approach to our worship, hymns, liturgy? First, it starts outside the church. If people don’t come to our churches in droves then we shouldn’t be surprised. We don’t sing or speak their language and, too often, we haven’t listened, let alone learned from this. In fact we live in an alternative culture, but as Mark Kermode might say, ‘not in a good way’.

Worship asks us to answer existential questions and to express fundamental beliefs. If others are to join our worship they will need language which will express their deepest feelings, deepest fears. Our theological language may not work. It is no good saying that they will have to learn. Part of the message of the resurrection appearances of Jesus is that each person, be it Mary or Peter, Thomas or those on the road to Emmaus, was met where they were, grieving or in guilt, doubting or not understanding. No one was forced to accept something that they couldn’t. In our context that may well mean putting to one side some beliefs that we have accepted as fundamental. Much of our theology will be criticised as implausible, incredible. The crucifixion may resonate as divine child abuse to some people. Virgin birth may raise questions in relation to male power and the father-hood of God. But our fundamental question ought not to be do we believe this or that theological proposition, but can God love this person? If we believe in such a love then nothing ought to stand in the way of our communicating it. C.S. Lewis stressed that we must know the language of our audience. We must communicate in ways that our hearers understand, not what we think they ought to understand. He went on to imply that if we couldn’t do that it was not the fault of our hearers, but we who were confused. It is the difference between that image of God watching ‘from a distance’ and the presence of Jesus, born, living and dying in our midst as one of us.

Of course getting folk in inherited church to support a mission that won’t fill pews isn’t easy. But the bottom line is, do we value others enough to enable them to know that God loves them without forcing them to be like us? If we do, are we willing to allow them to teach us how to be church? All too often, it seems to me, our precious buildings, practices and creeds matter more.

12 thoughts on “Being Understood”

  1. Would we go into a Sports Club and expect someone to play Tiddlywinks with us?
    Would we join a History Group and ask them to have a chat about flower arranging?
    Would we sign up to an Art class and hope to learn a foreign language?
    I don’t have a problem with anyone encountering God in any way whatsoever, and my greatest desire is that everyone can be awakened to God’s unconditional love for all people, but why is it necessary to get them into a Christian Church to worship alongside those who have a long-standing and deep-seated belief in the fundamental Christian faith? Why should any of us compromise our own beliefs so that someone else can practice theirs? Love and let live, I’d say, but I’m not letting go of God as I perceive Him!

    ‘No power of Hell, no scheme of man, can ever pluck me from His hands …..’
    (Getty/Townend StF 351)


    1. I didn’t read the article as having to compromise my belief’s – rather to be open to other ways of expression. Being open to the possibility that others might find our ways of worship strange to say the least. A simple example is that when we have a baptism, often these honoured guests are put at the front of the church – and might have no idea of when to stand up or sit down – its all going on behind them! I don’t think it is too much to ask that we are inclusive in our welcome, that we might just consider the idea of using songs that would be well known from school say, or at least the tunes, dare I say including some Stormsy or Coldplay? in other words doing what Paul did and starting from where people are at.


      1. Baptism families in our church have the whole place to themselves; the Baptism service is a separate event which takes place after morning worship. The Church can be almost full with people whom we invariably never see again, despite a very watered down liturgy tailored to suit the uninitiated. We don’t have hymns unless they request them, but they rarely do.. The important thing is that we welcome a newcomer into the family of God; that’s all that matters.
        We often talk as though there are hordes of folk lingering outside our doors, longing to come in if only we would change the way we do things. There aren’t. People find their spirituality outside the church these days (support groups, meditation, healing therapies etc.)
        I think we need to get over it and focus on nurturing the souls of the faithful.


    2. Not everyone who attends church has the same ‘longstanding and deep-seated belief in the fundamental Christian faith’. Expressions of faith occupy a spectrum rather than converge to a point. They might have different but equally strongly held convictions from your own which they would regard as fundamental. There is more than one way of understanding Christianity. We do not need to enshrine belief in traditional categories or words which we then have to translate. In order to share our beliefs with others, inside and outside the church, we need to use a common language. Perhaps we could try starting with theirs.


      1. It’s very noble and selfless to want to be all things to everyone but where do you draw the line?
        What if our local Satanist cult turns up next Sunday looking for a warm welcome? Do we talk their language?
        Surely the fundamentals of Christianity are what Jesus said and did?
        Jesus called God ‘Abba’ (Father) and his first commandment was to ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart ….’


      2. It might seem logical that the first of the two great love commandments must have precedence over the second one. Yet Jesus’ words suggest that it is not that simple, and that these two commandments are neither as hierarchical nor as distinct as we might assume. In the parable of the Good Samaritan Jesus praises the Samaritan who involved himself in the messy, uncomfortable and costly business of caring for others rather than the priest and the Levite, who were concerned to keep themselves pure so that they could serve God in the temple. In the parable of the sheep and goats we have “whatever you did or didn’t do for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did or didn’t do for me.” Jesus spent much of his ministry reaching out to those regarded as unclean by the religious leaders of the day. Mother Teresa said, “Whenever I meet someone in need, it’s really Jesus in his most distressing disguise.”


  2. Just an afterthought; anyone who has seen footage of Johnny Cash live at San Quentin in 1969 will have no doubt that God’s presence was felt there. No hymns, no sermons, no prayers, just love.
    Anyone can find God if they want to, without someone else compromising their own faith.


  3. A Communist, listening to a churchgoer explaining why he attended church, responded ‘Ah -it’s getting in touch with your value systems.’

    It’s how we do the daily job, the conversations in the ‘bus queue, or with the Big Issue seller, or the smile exchanged with the immigrant with whom we have no common language, or the way we treat the kids when we’re run ragged and have no energy left, that give our ‘value systems’expression. Sunday is just one day of our week, corporate worship is but an hour or two of that, and our church buildings are just one of the places we inhabit. We don’t normally speak (or sing) in Charles Wesley-type polysyllables on weekday mornings, but we are the church, seven days a week!

    I have been inside more prisons than most other readers of Theology Everywhere, visiting perhaps twice a year a young offender who over the years (and many moves) has become an old offender. He does a great job helping other vulnerable prisoners to keep relatively sane within an incomprehensible system. It’s a privilege to visit him, and a privilege few of us have – to get on the other side of the gate now and again, and to be able to get out again at the end of the visit. The newspaper ‘Inside Time’ (‘A voice for prisoners since 1990’) is a first-rate read too. Terry Waite is a regular contributor, and he knows what he’s talking about.

    Thank you, Andrew, for this thoughtful challenge on a Monday morning.


  4. In Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, Gabriel Oak comes across a flock of sheep struggling on their backs and has to puncture their stomachs to let out the gas. The sheep are suffering from bloat, a potentially fatal reaction to eating too rich fodder. Some years ago a large group of my daughter’s friends in their late twenties attended a baptism. For many it was their first time in church for years. The vicar felt he could not miss the opportunity to convert so many young people and gave them a concentrated portion of their sinfulness, their need for salvation and how to commit themselves to Christ. The effect on them was the spiritual equivalent of bloat. One young man who had been hoping to persuade his girlfriend to go to church with him commented, “I can forget about that now for five years at least.”

    We have to provide the right food for individuals, if sheep or people are to flourish. If someone has not eaten for a long time, we would not provide a full three-course meal. We would choose something nutritious but also easy to digest. Should this not apply in the spiritual realm also? Too often we just offer table d’hôte, as it were, in the form of a full traditional church service. Some of this is indigestible for anyone unused to it, because of the strange church-speak in hymns and readings, like ‘the lamb on the throne’. There are a lot of spiritually hungry people in this country who need something other than a full service or other formal church meeting.

    The set menus of traditional outreach courses may be just what some people need but others will reject being shepherded towards orthodox beliefs and find the images in such courses outmoded and unhelpful. We need to be prepared to design individual diets for people who are on their own spiritual journey. Perhaps instead of preaching at them we might involve them in practical activities with a spiritual dimension, such as community or charity work, or encourage them to talk to us about their spiritual feelings and experiences. If we listen carefully to them, we might be better placed to help them make the right next step from where they are, rather than trying to rush them towards where we would like them to be.


  5. By chance – no, that must be wrong! NOT by chance, my Daily Devotional from the UCC in the US included this paragraph:

    But let’s never forget that we are not in charge. The Holy Spirit convicts and transforms. Jesus forgives and redeems. God directs and controls. When any of us bears God’s responsibilities on our shoulders, we risk doing more harm than good and we lose both peace and joy.

    Thank you for all your contributions.


  6. This started out as a discussion on inclusive worship but it seems to have become about faith vs good works.
    John Wesley preached that both acts of piety and acts of service are means of grace, and one does not exclude the other. But you can’t preach inclusivity in church and then exclude those who prefer traditional worship.
    ‘Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name ….’ (Jesus of Nazareth)


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