Photo by Greg Dunlap
Photo by Greg Dunlap

Along with a lot of other Christians, Presbyterians are too damn in love with words. Though celebrating the life of the mind as a way of faith is one of the things that drew me to Presbyterianism, I’m realizing now that sometimes we let ourselves get carried away. And, of course, we’re not alone.

Think about it. It’s often the case that a full third of a worship hour is filled with a single person preaching a sermon. In Presbyterian worship, this is the central moment of the service. And most of the rest of the service is words too. Sure, we set some of those words to music. And some of those words are prayers. But if this is the primary religious engagement of most Christians, it’s clear that we have a tendency to approach God through words.

The same is true about confirmation and a lot of youth ministry. We introduce and nurture faith through questioning and discussion. If we really think about the process of confirmation as a whole, and its culmination in written statements of faith, whether we mean to or not we are communicating to our young people that God is found in the words we use to talk about God.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how to articulate an unashamedly progressive understanding of Christianity. Without a doubt, traditional Christianity has been challenged and problematized by modern thinking. Fundamentalism is one response to this. It typically seeks assurance of God’s reality and presence through dogma and literal readings of the Bible. Liberal or progressive Christians take a different approach, but it’s still mostly done through words about God, words about faith, words about the church, etc. Either end of the theological spectrum and all points in between are wrapped up in talking about God. (“Theology” is, after all, “words about God.”)

While I fully intend to keep talking about God and articulating a progressive understanding of Christianity that isn’t afraid of modern or postmodern challenges to traditional Christianity, I’m no longer satisfied with simply playing word games. What I long for—and what I suspect many people in today’s world long for—is direct experiences of God’s presence. God’s all around us, of course. But it takes some intentional effort to recognize and name (with or without words) our experiences of divine presence.

Last night I began reading The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism, which is edited and introduced by Bernard McGinn, one of my teachers at the University of Chicago Divinity School and probably the foremost authority on Christian mysticism in the English-speaking world. Sure, it’s another book full of words. But they are the words of Christian mystics across the centuries who have explored direct encounters with God’s presence. Ultimately, it is a search for God beyond words.

My life will probably always be filled with words about God and words about our efforts to gather in communities of faith. But coupled with this, I need experiences of God that are most definitely beyond words.

John W. Vest

John is a "church hacker" attempting to overcome the limitations of church as we know it. To connect with him and learn more about his work, please visit

Reader Interactions


  1. AMEN.

    (this is why I wrote a book about spiritual practices, interestingly. Because we’re looking for experience, not just talk. And yes, I note the irony inherent in *writing* a book about *experiencing* God…)

  2. Curmudgeon here. For years people have been saying this. I don’t think the problem is words — I think its poorly executed words. Yes we need prayer, and silence and community and service, but please, don’t take away the words. Good words matter.

  3. I’m reading an interview with John O’Donohue. Part of it reminds me of this conversation: “The opposite of tenderness is force. Many people in postmodern spirituality and psychotherapy force themselves to improve. The thing about the spiritual world is: if you push, it does not work. It’s like the sexual world: you have to be in rhythm, be in the flow, and be gentle, and then the whole thing takes off and unfolds with sublime spontaneity of its own.” It’s what I think about experiencing God – words or no words, it happens, but we can’t control it. We can just try to be in the flow and be tender.

  4. I agree with the need for real experiences, but I wonder if we can leverage our video technologies here to generate a time in worship when these experiences might happen. My thoughts here aren’t well-developed, but one of them is to show some of the amazing pictures from the Hubble telescope on our video screens during a period of silence. Or videos taken around the immediate community combined with an instrumental-only period of special music. We would need to educate our congregations that this time is meant to be a time to let their brains go and let their hearts lead their minds into the mystery of God, letting God do the talking to us.

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