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Tuesday, August 19, 2014

i know those words but don't know what you mean

I had just arrived in Edinburgh, Scotland and was supposed to meet my host at the airport. I didn't know what he looked like or where to find him, and though he had given me his phone number, my cell phone didn't have an international plan and the airport wi-fi wasn't connecting. I saw a few familiar things when I came out of customs into the waiting area: a coffee shop, some public computers for internet access, and even some phones. But I didn't (yet) have the currency. My host and I eventually found each other - it was a good portent that he had been in the coffee shop!

One of (seriously!) 1000 shows, acts, venues going on
for the "Fringe Festival"; Edinburgh Castle in the back
After a stop at the house, we ventured out into Edinburgh for an ENORMOUS month-long arts festival in the heart of town. As we navigated through to find something to watch and buy tickets, I kept noticing that I had to ask him to repeat himself and explain what he was saying to me. There was his accent (which, really, was pretty mild), but more difficult for me were so many different ways of saying things. Whether it was the boot of the car (I actually knew that one) or the "queue" to buy tickets or something costing so many "quid" (I thought it was pounds?!)... I recognized the words as existing in the language I speak, but sometimes I had no idea what he was saying. I would have been prepared for this in a culture that spoke a foreign language, but, you know, I watch Dr. Who and Sherlock and didn't figure it would throw me so much.

People ordering food and drink before returning the their table.
We went out to eat for lunch - at a legit Scottish pub. We sat down at a table and discussed what we would order, then he pointed at a number inscribed on the table top and said to stay here and he would go order. He went to the bar (with 50 other people arrayed placing their order) and left our table number there. Clearly, I knew what restaurant, table, table number, bar, menu, ordering, and all the rest were, but it was not a way of ordering food that I had ever seen.  Glad he was with me or I might have been waiting a while for a server to show up at the table!  :)

Surely you can see this person urgently
needs to get to the restroom?  :)
As we were finishing, I indicated that I needed to find the restroom. He gestured across the fairly large restaurant and said it's over there down some stairs. I set off across the restaurant and noticed some well-lit green signs of a person at the head of some stairs, so I followed the signs down two flights of stairs to a single door and went through. The door closed behind me, locked, and I found myself on the street! I went around the block, back into the restaurant and found my host at the table. He chuckled and went with me through the restaurant and pointed out the word "Toilet" at the head of another staircase. It turns out the little green running man (I thought he just really had to go!) is used throughout the country to mark the emergency exit. In the U.S. we use words for EXIT and pictures for restroom... and though I know the word "toilet" - it was not what I was looking for. All in all it was a great lesson in cultural expectations and differences. (It was also not my last bathroom mis-adventure.)

Why share all that here, as mildly humorous as it might be? It is because...

Church can also be a confusing and mis-leading culture of different language and expectations that "outsiders" have difficulty navigating.

For example:
  • Does your church have an unspoken dress code? Behavior code? Food in the sanctuary?
  • Can someone unfamiliar with church easily figure out words and practices like "passing the peace," "fellowship hour," "doxology," "confession," "hymn of praise," "creed," or any other number of things churched folks probably take for granted?
  • What about the more cultural/sub-cultural things like "ladies' circle," "covered dish dinner," "special offering," or even "youth group"?  I mean, do people outside of church ever "take an offering" for anything? At least "collection" would be a little more understandable.
  • What about standing and sitting, singing from a hymnal (or a screen), and so many of the things we do?
  • Do we sometimes, unintentionally, show people the exit door? 
I am a life-long church-goer and I have even found myself lost and confused visiting another church... even in my own Presbyterian tradition! Think about how that might feel for someone new to church and questioning the faith.

Where I'm going with all this is THIS: Are there ways we can open up insider language to better welcome those who come from outside the church or the faith?

Now there is also a fine line between opening up insider language and practice and retaining the MYSTERY that can be an important part of a worshiping community. So, in my examples above, I didn't need or want my hosts to "speak American" to me; what did work well (which we all quickly learned) was how helpful it was for them to anticipate and recognize where I might have trouble and help 'translate' or 'interpret' things that might be unfamiliar.

I'd love to hear some ways folks have done this kind of "opening up" of insider language and practices, particularly where you also have been able to maintain some of the uniqueness of Christian worship and community!

More coming...

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