There is an ad campaign airing now that uses several dated similes. One of them asks the auto buyer if he is happy with the deal they are offering and he responds that he is “Happy as a clam.” Only instead of the word clam, the commercial inserts an animated clam laughing. That got me thinking about the phrase. A clam is about as emotionless as a living thing can be. How did we ever get the idea that a clam could be happy? It makes no logical sense, but still we use the metaphor.
There is another phrase used in the ad that I understand, but to me, makes no logical sense. Another car buyer responds that the deal she is offered is “the best thing since sliced bread.” Now, I understand that there was a time when bread was routinely sold unsliced, and in bakeries you can still buy it that way. But for me, bread has always been sliced. So the simile loses some of its meaning.
Of course, that is the point of the commercial. It is supposed to be ridiculous. It is supposed to make us chuckle. And it is supposed to make us remember what company spent all the money to make the ad and buy the time to place it on television. I hate to say, although I know it is a car commercial, I have no idea which auto company it is advertising.
And that makes me think about preaching. Bet you didn’t see that coming. Why, you might ask, does it remind you of preaching? Good question. Just like that commercial relies on humor and deliberate reference to dated expressions, sometimes our preaching does the same. We get into our familiar language and expect everyone who hears us will understand what we are talking about. But that is not a safe assumption.
When I was in seminary, I was the youth pastor in a church for a year. The pastor was a good preacher, but most of his illustrations referred to people and events that were before my time. And I just knew that the kids I was working with were tuning out. It made faith seem old-fashioned. It made belief in Christ synonymous with events that happened long before they were born.
I don’t mean that we have to adopt the latest jargon. That changes so rapidly that we are likely to appear hopeless if we try. And there is nothing sadder than a preacher that thinks he or she is hip and everything they do screams that this is not so. But we do need to think about who is out there in the pew and what they need to hear. There are ways to package the unchanging good news of Jesus that will reach people who are unfamiliar with the old “churchy” language.
I believe we can make the gospel relevant to every generation without watering down the essential message. I am seeking to do that in my preaching and I invite you to try it well. Whether you are a Sunday school teacher, preacher or just church member, you may have a chance to express your faith to someone who is unfamiliar with it. I just hope that we make an effort to speak in a language they understand.
After all, “Is the Pope Catholic?” I just pray that the words that come out of my mouth do not get in the way of the message of God’s love for all of humanity. For certainly, we all need to hear that message.