(For more background on Restoration and Valley and Mountain, check out Part 1 here.)
As a churchgoer who is friends with plenty of non-churchgoers, I have become self-conscious about some of the lingo that all churches use. For example, growing up Catholic, the word “saint” means something to me that it doesn’t mean to a lot of other Christians or non-Christians. To me, the saints were a part of the furniture of my religion, like churches themselves and taking communion. I didn’t pick up on how weird saints were to other people until I got a student Bible for my confirmation that had a handy FAQ about Catholicism (no joke). One of the questions was “How can I explain the saints to my non-Catholic friends?”
The answer is that the saints can pray just like we can pray–and if we have more people praying for us, isn’t that great? So we don’t pray to the saints, we pray to the saints to pray for us.
The distinction is hazy at best, and to other non-Catholic Christians, it sounds like we are praying to someone besides God (which we are). And that sounds like we believe that things besides God are God (which we, in theory, don’t). So early on, I figured out that some things that I think of as completely normal are strange and even evil to other people. The disagreement is made evident in the words that we choose to use; my grandma often tells me to pray to the Virgin Mary, which someone outside the church might interpret as me praying to someone besides God as though they were God.
Every church, no matter how liberal, conservative, old-fashioned, or new, uses lingo that non-churchgoers do not get. Non-churchgoers don’t get it on two levels: sometimes, they don’t understand the word at all, and sometimes, they understand the word, but it means something different from what they think.
For example, at Restoration, the evangelical church in Dover, NH, where I spent a year writing a book, Pastor Nate preaches a lot about accepting Jesus as your savior. This doesn’t mean anything to someone who doesn’t believe in Jesus. To those who do know who Jesus is, it means something quite specific: 1. That we are sinners and would go to hell without Jesus and 2. That Jesus is the only way we can be “reconciled” to God. “Accepting Jesus” also means taking on certain responsibilities: going to church weekly (or as close to that as you can), reading the Bible often, praying to God, and asking other Christians for guidance. When you do these things, you should discover some specific directions for your life, and some universal truths that other evangelical Christians accept. Depending on the church, you might be led to discover that homosexuality is a sin, that premarital sex is wrong, or that drinking to get drunk is wrong.
This is one of the things that annoys, scares, or angers folks outside the evangelical movement. Evangelical Christians use “general” modern language. They talk about “Jesus saving,” but what they really mean is “Jesus will only save you if you do X, Y, and Z.” And it turns out that X, Y, and Z are creepy and weird, or in some cases downright wrong.
(For the record, Pastor Nate would tell you that Jesus saves you no matter what your sins, so even if you don’t believe that drinking is wrong, if you have accepted Jesus, you are saved–even if you get drunk every weekend. In fact, that’s kind of the point: Jesus saves you even though you are a sinner, and even though you continue to sin. The problem still remains that Pastor Nate believes that certain things are sins, but that is for another essay.)
The image of using general, open-sounding language to “lure” people into their churches is a battle that evangelicals are constantly fighting against. On the one hand, they want to reach people who have never heard of Jesus before. The best way they have come up with to do this is to talk about “Jesus saving” and “Jesus accepting” everyone. On the other hand, they believe in certain parts of the Bible that other people think are outdated and crazy. They would not try to deny either allegation.
Valley and Mountain, at first glance, seems to have less lingo. It doesn’t have the trappings of an intentional, specific experience: there aren’t free Bibles lying around, there isn’t a moment at the end of the service when you can get saved. But sometimes John, who calls himself the “convener” of “Celebration,” which is V+M’s name for services, says things that would make no sense to those uninitiated into liberal, progressive American culture.
For example, John talks about “The Empire.” The Empire as a real, evil, driving force that keeps lower and middle-class people down in America and around the world. It’s not clear who The Empire is, but from the photos of protests and the topics of sermons (racism, radical hospitality, how best to spend our money) that fill the ether of V+M, it’s clear that The Empire is big business, corporations, and at times, the government. John told me once (quoting Dorothy Day), “It’s a dirty rotten system.” By that he meant (at least) the way that the American economy works: most of our money goes to big corporations who exploit poor people, keeping them poor.
“The Empire” is a pretty harsh assessment of the American economic system. I think many folks, my friends outside of V+M included, would roll their eyes at “The Empire.” Do we really think that someone else is keeping us down–that we can’t achieve all that we want? Do we really blame the system for personal shortcomings? What about all of the people who have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps in America? What about the fact that poor people aren’t saints? What about all the things that I have achieved? The Empire certainly isn’t holding me down.
But this is what V+M sees as (part of) its role as a prophetic community: awaken the world to what is “really going on,” to the injustices of the system.
Is that naive? Brave? Wrong?
I think you could ask the same questions of Restoration’s mission to save as many people as possible. Is it admirable? Or a waste of time? And while it turns out I think one set of answers about V+M and another about Restoration, they are two sides of the same coin: a focus on achieving what each community believes is its mission on planet Earth.