Author Jonathan Merritt on learning to “speak God”

Author and Atlanta native Jonathan Merritt. CREDIT: DAN BIGELOW/

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Author and Atlanta native Jonathan Merritt. CREDIT: DAN BIGELOW/

When Atlanta native and bestselling author Jonathan Merritt moved from the South to New York City a few years ago, he encountered a spiritual language vacuum.

His new Northern neighbors, he noticed, rarely used common religious words in everyday conversation. They avoided having spiritual conversations or talking about God.

In his new book, “Learning to Speak God from Scratch,” Merritt, a faith and culture writer and Emory University graduate,  explores why words like faith, salvation, courage, compassion and fruit of the Spirit are rapidly disappearing from everyday conversation.

“These types of phrases are being used less and less in a post-modern, pluralistic society,” said Merritt. “Their use is in massive decline.”

He knew that moving to New York would involve a certain amount of culture shock. What he didn’t expect was such a  language barrier.

“It wasn’t in the sense that I could no longer speak English,” Merritt said in a telephone interview from Florida. “But I could no longer speak God.”

Merritt’s Bible Belt roots run deep. The church and Bible were a big part of his upbringing.

His father is the Rev. James Merritt, senior pastor of Cross Pointe Church in Duluth and  a former president of the  Southern Baptist Convention. The younger Merritt  was on staff at Cross Pointe before he moved to New York.

A recent survey from the Barna Group shows that 7 percent of  people who identify themselves as Christians have a spiritual conversation once a week.

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Even if people say they care about Christianity, they don’t talk about it. And it’s not just in New York City. That trend is happening across the nation.

People didn’t speak about spirituality the same way as Merritt, who spent about four years researching this book. And that, he said, “created a real crisis for me. I was no longer having these conversations. What does it mean when you say you’re an evangelical Christian? What does salvation mean?”

He discovered that all too often, in this time of political and cultural divisiveness, those words were even viewed negatively.

“A quarter of people say religious conversations always create tension or start arguments,” he said. “Others said whether or not I’m a Christian, I don’t understand what the words mean anymore. A large number said religious words have become politicized. You hear Donald Trump use religious language and it sounds disingenuous and people shrink back from that. The notion of sharing your faith in public is considered extreme and millennials as especially sensitive to that.”

He also draws a link between the decline in church attendance and the use of sacred words.

Today, Merritt wants to bring that language back into everyday conversation.

And it’s goes deeper than faith. It’s about how one views the world.

“There’s now an emerging body of research that shows a correlation between words we use and our thoughts and behaviors,” he said. “If we don’t talk about God. If we don’t talk about faith or kindness or compassion or grace, then we don’t think about how those words are shown in our behavior.

“If we don’t talk about compassion, we can’t be a compassionate society.”

» Sunday, Aug. 5 events:

Jonathan Merritt will discuss and sign copies of his book, “Learning to Speak God from Scratch,” Free.  10:30 a.m.. Vinings Lake Church, 75 Cooper Lake Road, Mableton; and 6 p.m. at Atlanta Becoming at the Elevator Factory, 437 Memorial Drive S.E., Atlanta.