Learning to Speak God From Scratch

Learning to Speak God From Scratch
Why Sacred Words Are Vanishing—and How We Can Revive Them
(Convergent, 2018)

WHO: Jonathan Merritt, an award-winning author and speaker.

HE SAYS: “Millions of Americans now struggle to find sacred language that can adequately describe life’s deeper truths.”

THE BIG IDEA: With the goal of inspiring readers to talk about their faith with greater confidence, this book focuses on rediscovering a love for consecrated terms and explaining why speaking about God matters now more than ever.

Part 1, “The Lost Language of Faith,” is only six chapters long, but it sets the foundation for the rest of the text. The author explains why sacred words are in crisis, why talking about God matters and why certain words need a revival.
Part 2, “Finding Our Voices Again,” is the author’s attempt to play with some of his most- and least-favorite sacred words (creed, fall, prayer, sin) in order to encourage readers to dream about what sacred words might mean for them.

“Jesus is not just a message from God to us. Jesus is also a perpetual call from God inviting us into a cosmic conversation.”

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Why do you believe sacred words are vanishing?

The simplest explanation is that we’ve lost confidence in the vocabulary of faith. But there are many of reasons for this waning confidence according to a study I commissioned with Barna Group of more than 1,000 Americans. Some say that sacred words have become politicized, others that they don’t want to sound like a religious extremist and others still that they’ve been hurt by sacred words in the past. Whatever the reason, the data is clear that despite widespread religiosity in America, sacred words and spiritual conversations are becoming endangered species.

What can pastors do to stem this trend?

Linguists agree that every language will trend toward either evolution or extinction. One of the primary drivers of language revival is the ability to “play” with words—that is, to see words as having malleable meanings that morph according to the needs of the present moment. C.S. Lewis compared this to a growing tree, where new branches of meaning sprout over time, connected to the original but new nonetheless. Sadly, many churches have fossilized sacred terms and do not allow lay people to question their accepted meanings. Pastors must learn to welcome vibrant dialogue about what fraught and complex words—sin and grace, hell and salvation—should mean for us today. If pastors do not welcome dialogue, disagreement and doubts within the four walls of the church, we should expect to see these declines continue.

Which generation is having the most spiritual conversations and why?

Here is the kicker: Younger generations are actually more likely to “speak God” than older generations. Millennials, for example, are the least likely group to say they haven’t had a spiritual conversation in the past year. They still struggle with sacred words, but not as much as boomers. It is difficult to explain why this is—I have some guesses—but it is a data point that makes me hopeful that we can revive sacred speech if we do choose.