Monday, May 15, 2017

Should we change language to attract newcomers?

I have heard the opinion recently, and not least at the last Unitarian Annual Meetings, that we need to change language to attract newcomers. Don't say "hymn" or "church" (or even "God") - we're told - these sorts of words put people off.

This argument comes from a genuinely good instinct - to do all we can to attract people outside our Unitarian communities - but I think it needs thinking about a bit more. Let me use an example to think through these issues.

Imagine I am on a mission to get more people to play football in the United States of America. I would certainly be starting on the wrong foot if I started talking about "football" all the time, because that means a completely different sport in that culture. I would need to use the word "soccer." It would be absolutely necessary to translate a term to something more meaningful in that culture. In all I did I would say, "I'm promoting soccer" even though in my life and culture I would naturally use the word "football."

But that is a different process to thinking "Americans don't like exercise they like fast food" so I'm going to say, "I'm promoting lovely delicious fast food." I'm sure I could selectively find lots of research and statistics to back up my assertion that Americans prefer fast food to exercise. And so I could make a good argument that saying "I'm promoting fast food" would be a much more popular advertising campaign. So I could set up football matches but advertise them as giving away fast food. I could put up golden arches outside football pitches but then when people came through them they would discover not fast food but in fact the invitation to play football. The problem with this is obvious. It is false advertising. It is lying.

The other way I could promote this is the opposite. I could say "come and play soccer" but in fact give up the game and just give people fast food when they turned up. "I'm promoting football" I could say, "It's just that 'football' now means eating hamburgers, as we've discovered that that's much more popular." This has the disadvantage that it might very well annoy the people who did want to come and play football, but in turning up have discovered only fast food. It also, obviously, is a failure of the basic mission of getting people to play football - I have failed in that task as I've forgotten what football actually is. I'm just promoting something entirely different and labelling it "playing football."

So, to return to the world of religion - should we give up words like "hymn" "church" or "God"? Well, that entirely depends. If it is a matter of translating a term into something more meaningful to a particular culture, then fine. But if it is indulging in lying (pretending we're something we're not) or of abandoning the mission (promoting something more popular, but in doing so losing the very essence of what we're doing) then we clearly shouldn't.

The point is we need to know very clearly what the essence is of what we're doing before we start doing it. I need to be very clear that I know what football is and how to play it before I go about my mission of getting more people to play it. If I get in a muddle and start promoting American football (an entirely different game) then I'm failing in my mission. If I cheat, lie, or cynically manipulate what I'm doing so that I'm really promoting fast food and simply labelling it "playing football" then I'm failing in my mission.

And if I want people to play football I need to realise that I am going to have to spend some time getting people to understand the language and the rules of the game. I need people to understand the off-side rule, what a goalkeeper is, what a penalty is, if I want people to play football. If people change the language, and use entirely different words, then no problem. But if folks start changing the rules, like picking up the ball with their hands, then we have stopped playing football.

Similarly it is not unreasonable to think that in joining a religious community, there will need to be a process of induction and education. People don't understand what a term means? Well, of course they don't, until we teach them. We must teach them the rules - the practices of the faith. That may be a process that takes a long time, years even.

So how about dropping a word like "worship" - calling it a "gathering" or "celebration" or something like that? Well, sure, if that's a reasonable translation of the term that is more meaningful and understandable, then absolutely fine. But if we actually stop worshipping, if we actually change the core activity that we're doing, then we've got rather in a muddle. And we may have failed to fulfil our mission.

If our mission is to get people to worship (a particular spiritual practice) then it doesn't really matter if we call it "worship" or some other term. But if we cease to worship because we believe people don't like worship, then we have failed in our mission to get people to worship. We've stopped doing the core activity we were trying to promote. We started playing football, and now we're just eating hamburgers. 

(Some of these ideas are explored in a similar way in the book "Evangelism after Christendom" by Bryan Stone)

Monday, May 08, 2017

Prayer - the centre of Unitarian faith (video)

Think For Yourself