by David Anguish
My parents had a better vocabulary than my sons do. At least they did if both my parents and sons fit the general trend cited by Bill Repp.
In a question-answer column appearing in our local paper, Repp, who is president of the Organization Development Group, responded to a reader who questioned the fairness of having a presentation judged by the size of her vocabulary. He stated that “in 1950, the average 14-year-old had a vocabulary of 50,000 words. Today, the average teenager knows only 25,000 words.”/1 Repp went on to say that these numbers are evidence of “a trend that’s been called the ‘dumbing down’ of America.” They are numbers that should not surprise us in a society where the average person watches more than 30 hours of television a week. As Repp observes, “There’s not much opportunity to build a powerful, commanding vocabulary watching ‘American Idol,’ ‘Dancing With The Stars’ or ‘Desperate Housewives.'” This trend presents a challenge and an opportunity for God’s people.
We are challenged in our ability to influence our world. We live in this “dumbed down” society and, as Repp notes, may “have too easily joined” the trend. At the same time, we find ourselves facing in a culture with a variety of belief systems the likes of which the church probably has not faced since New Testament times. The question is not just whether we can communicate with people in a “dumbed down” world. We must also ask whether we are equipped to respond to the many “arguments and … lofty opinion[s] raised against the knowledge of God” (see 2 Corinthians 10:3-6, ESV). To the extent that we resist the dumbing down trend, we are presented with an opportunity to affect our world as radically as the earliest Christians affected theirs. Think about what they did. A small group of confused and frightened followers in the hours after Jesus’ crucifixion became leaders in a movement that in just three centuries saw the capitulation, philosophically at least, of the world’s greatest power.
How did they do it? They took seriously Peter’s charge to persecuted Christians to “always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15). Notice that preparation came first. They had to know before they could defend.
Nearly a century ago, T. R. Glover explained how that process worked out in practice. “The Christian read the best books, assimilated them, and lived the freest intellectual life the world had. Jesus had set him free to be true to fact … From the very start every Christian had to know and understand, he had to read the Gospels; he had to be able to give reason for his faith. They read about Jesus and they knew him, and they knew where they stood … Who did the thinking of the ancient world? Again and again it was the Christian. He out-thought the world.”/2
Our world awaits similar direction.
1/ Bill Repp, “Vocabulary is seen as a skill, so cultivate it,” The (Memphis) Commercial Appeal, May 14, 2006, p. D3.
2/ T. R. Glover, The Jesus of History (New York: Association Press, 1917), p. 217.
David Anguish has served as minister in the Southwind church in Memphis, Tennessee, since April, 2000.
The Dumbing Down of America