Jonathan Merritt on His New Book ‘Learning to Speak God From Scratch’

Ed Stetzer: I am glad to welcome Jonathan Merritt to The Exchange. Jonathan is one of America’s most prolific religion and culture writers. Yesterday we started our conversation. You can view that exchange here. Today, we dive deeper into his new book, Learning to Speak God from Scratch.

Ed: You talked a lot about the importance of learning to speak of God, particularly as you went from the South to NYC. How did that change impact your relationships in NYC?
Jonathan: When I moved to New York City, I encountered an unexpected language barrier. I could still speak English, but I could no longer speak God. I couldn’t have free-flowing conversations on spirituality and faith because I was encountering people who practiced different faiths or none at all.
And even many of my Christian friends didn’t quite understand my religious jargon. The result was that my friendships became more shallow. We might talk about the weather or sports or maybe politics, but questions of meaning and purpose and the inner-life were largely avoided.
This is actually the experience many Americans are having. According to a study I conducted for the book with Barna Group, only seven percent of Americans say they have a spiritual or religious conversation on a regular basis. That’s shocking given that nearly 71 percent of Americans claim to be Christian. The vast majority of our citizens do not often speak about the spirituality they claim is important to them.
Ed: You tied these things into research and missiology, so those parts interested me. What points or research are most important to you?
Jonathan: I was surprised that so few Americans talk about faith for sure. But a lot of us are nominally religious, as you know. I figured that most “practicing Christians,” which is to say those who attend church regularly, would buck the trend. But I was wrong, wrong, wrong. Only 13 percent of practicing Christians—that’s 1 in 8—say they have spiritual or religious conversations on a regular basis.
I was also surprised to discover that the older you are, the less likely you are to speak God regularly. I imagined that boomers and elders would be talking about God more frequently since they came of age in a period when civil religion was more popular.
This is not the case, however. Why? I think that many older people, Christians included, are disoriented by how rapidly the world has changed. Unlike millennials, they don’t know what is acceptable anymore.
They don’t know what is “politically correct” and what is not. When you don’t know the rules, you won’t play the game.
Ed: Explain how you see your book as connecting to missionary endeavors.
Jonathan: I’m arguing for the kind of conversation about sacred words that occurs within a diverse community. Rather than assuming that the way you have understood a word is the right and only way to understand that word, this approach takes seriously others’ critiques. We may use a religious term in one way, but when we see how it impacts a woman or a person of color, for example, it helps our understanding to mature.
A good example of this is the word “blessed,” which I devote an entire chapter to in the book. The word “blessed,” thanks in part to the influence of social media, has become little more than a statement of privilege. It is affixed to photos of vacations to Punta Cana and BMWs wrapped in Christmas bows.
If privileged people remain insulated in privileged bubbles, they might never realize how the way they’ve used this word falls short.
But if they sit with someone who will likely never be able to afford a BMW or take a lavish vacation, their understanding of the word “blessed” can mature and expand to make space for others.
Missionary endeavors are fertile ground for these types of conversations because they usually involve crossing a cultural barrier and engaging with people who arise from a different context.
Unfortunately, throughout history these endeavors have often amounted to colonialism, imperialism, and exploitation. An American missionary might journey to an African country and teach white Western theology and Bible interpretation.
I hope that a book like mine will remind missionaries that they should enter into other contexts with the utmost respect for those cultures. Missionaries would do well to spend more time learning from their newfound communities as they spend trying to teach them.
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Source: Christianity Today
Source: Black Christian News