There is a theory that does the rounds that people in communities like mine need everything dumbed down. People hear us talking about keeping things simple and automatically assume we mean simplistic. They hear us say words like accessible and think we mean less depth and less rigorous. I don’t know anybody working in places like ours who think these things.
When we say we want to make things simple, we mean straightforward. When we say we want things to be accessible, we mean using normal language and explaining what we mean. We don’t think our people can’t handle big words like hermeneutics or that we should never mention theologians like John Calvin or Matthew Henry. We just think, when we use certain words, we explain them and when we cite theologians we say who they are.
I mentioned a while ago that we were beginning a Theology Breakfast on Sunday mornings. We are only a couple of weeks in, but we have now completed our doctrine of scripture element of the course. In it, we have discussed issues such as the final authority in matters of faith and practice, the nature of revelation, theories of inspiration and basic hermeneutics. Nobody has struggled with understanding these things. We haven’t avoided big words nor have we dumbed anything down. We have just made sure that we have properly explained everything as we go through.
Just because we live in a deprived community does not mean that our people are stupid. Uneducated is also not the same as being stupid. Not having formal qualifications does not make somebody stupid either. My experience has been, when we explain things properly, people do not fail to grasp the concepts we are teaching. Most are more than able to understand biblical concepts and doctrines, so long as we explain the words many haven’t heard before and we properly outline what those things mean.
There can be a not so subtle bigotry of low expectations. “These people” cannot handle these things. We need to dumb everything down for them. Well, no we don’t. We just need to teach in a way that means they understand the concepts. They are no less capable of understanding biblical theology and systematics than anyone else. As with any teaching, we just need to pitch it right and help people understand it properly.
What I suspect we often see is not the failure of people to understand so much as the failure of our teaching programmes to adequately explain. The truth is, we can be very learned and use a lot of words, but in the end, if they aren’t learning and understanding, we aren’t really teaching. The failure isn’t on the part of those who don’t understand what we’re saying, it’s on the part of those teaching who haven’t made themselves properly understood.
Most of us would do well to make our preaching more simple and straightforward. That doesn’t mean simplistic, pointing out what is profoundly obvious and explaining what is understood by everyone. I just mean speaking plainly, straightforwardly, and making sure we speak in normal ways that connect with normal people. In the end, it is understanding that we are aiming for and we want our people to understand some big and sometimes complex ideas and concepts. More of then than not, they can access the ideas perfectly well so long as we teach it in ways that are understandable. All of us – whether in deprived places or not – need to wrestle with how well we are truly understood and whether we are being straightforward in what we teach.