I recently overheard a pastor describing all the things his church is doing to be “missional” in the community. Listening to his conversation, I shuddered at his choice of words.
If missional means going to the people in ways they understand, I’m afraid this leader loses the intended audience the moment he opens his mouth.
Words matter. In fact, the words we use can draw people closer to Jesus—or push them away.
Some of us have been marinated in churchy language for a lifetime. Some of our words have no meaning whatsoever to the non-churched. (Some have no meaning to a lot of the churched people either.) And some words actually have negative and unhelpful connotations to our missional audience.
Many of the words we use “inside the shop” are good terms with rich meaning—to us. But using them outside of our ecclesiastical clique often hurts our cause. They aren’t “bad” words. They just don’t translate well to regular people.
In my work with our teams at Group Publishing and Lifetree Café we’ve ruled out words that we know don’t communicate well with those outside the Christian clique. Here are a few of those:
• “The lost.” Even those who are looking for God find that term insulting.
• “Saved.” Even if people have a clue what someone is saved from, they often associate the term with that weird sidewalk preacher on a soapbox.
• “The Word.” What “word”? Is it a four-letter word?
• “Narthex.” Or any other churchy word that describes a place or practice that is unknown outside our circles. Most of these terms sound like skin diseases.
• “Burden.” Sounds like bad baggage. A very negative word for a good cause.
• “Parish.” You die there?
What’s your favorite bit of Christianese jargon?
If we wish to help people follow Jesus, we must choose language that communicates well beyond our little clubhouse.
I agree with what you are saying here. I was hoping you would give some good alternative suggestions though too. What words would you choose instead of missional and narthex? We want to make changes but still want to stay true to being a church.
Well said. I’ve been trying to use plain language for a while now, for the basic reason that it allows me to concentrate on talking about Jesus. I don’t see it as necessary that folks know terminology from medieval architecture when we can just say entry hallway instead of narthex. For that matter, we can talk about grace and getting right with God without ever using terms like sanctification and justification. It’s quite liberating to focus on the important stuff.
I remember a training session I attended that discussed this very topic, especially how it applied to youth. An example was given about a visitor to a church. This guest had no idea what to expect behind those walls and had been warned to expect weird things. One of the things he heard was to come forward and be washed in the blood of the lamb! We do sound a bit churchy every so often!
I agree that we need some help knowing what words/phrases to use instead. That would be a great future topic! At the same time, I do wonder how did all of us ñ and the thousands of Christians who lived before us ñ get saved when we didn’t understand all those words? Somehow we did.
The unchurched. This word seriously pushes people in the opposite direction as fast as they can go. And, the flock.
Long ago our Church hired a Tree Doctor to annually care for the many trees on the property. Walking and talking with him included a wonderful conversation. He would tell me the name of the appropriate chemicals used for each of the [just as unique] trees. I’ve never remembered the difference between KQR 4096 and CJKMRG 802I just remember that he loved trees.
I have to agree that the words like narthex is something that unchurched persons don’t use. I personally don’t have a problem with using other words. My problem lies in trying to communicate it to our church family. We were asked to use new names and we did but you have to remember that it takes time. I would find myself sending out emails or announcements that said church lobby (narthex). It has almost become comical especially with our older folks who will always call it a narthex. So here I go naming it both names. I think that the point that I am making is that we also have to be sensitive to persons within the church otherwise we are also teaching newcomers that it is Ok to disregard our older adults. If just wander what Jesus would say? Probably, Come on in. Let’s talk awhile. And let’s other fried chicken and pizza.
Most churches, ours included, use a lot of abbreviations for different committees, outreach events, or even the church itself. The best I saw was an announcement inviting people to join UMW! But it didn’t explain what UMW meant. Oops.
Some have asked for suggested alternate terms from the churchy ones mentioned above. Here you go:
-Instead of lost, I just refer to them as people.
-Instead of get saved, I say become a Christian or follower of Jesus.
-Instead of The Word, I say the Bible.
-Instead of narthex, I say entry, foyer or lobby.
-Instead of burden, I say challenge, focus or passion.
-Instead of parish, I say church.
While I agree that, initially, ecclesiastical language can be intimidating, I also believe that, at some point, people need to hear this language that is common in churches (and has been for centuries). Terms like justification and sanctification are used frequently in Christian services and literature and it would benefit the believer to have knowledge of this language. If we want to do more than just bring people to Christ,we need to empower them to lead healthy, full Christian lives by exposing them to this Christainese so that they can come to understand the pastors and books that may be edifying to them in their walk.
I feel your pain, and have felt it for years. I still cringe when someone says I’m a Christian so you can do business with me, because I won’t take advantage of you or some other such blah-blah, because one of the worst experiences I ever had was with a Christian businessman. Don’t do that!! It just makes people feel like you’re trying to put one over on them, and nobody likes that. I have to resist the temptation to literally run the other direction when I hear that.
Yessavedexcuse me? Aren’t we all saved simply by the fact that Jesus died for us, whether we accept it or not? So in that sense, we are all saved, praise God!
For me and my church, we quit using narthex a long time ago, altho the elder members still use it. We honor them and would never correct them. However, we just call it the lobby – lol
I agree with Debbie, above, on using two names. As our church office manager, I’ve had to do the same thing several times.
We recently got rid of the horrible, ugly, dirty, dusty pews out of our lobby and replaced them with gorgeous, homey, comfy chairs, a couch, a leather bench, end tables, and a beautiful high desk. Our church members had put towards these items for almost 10 years and we figured it was high time.
Now, the lobby feels like home when I walk in. Ive had so many folks say wow, it feels like I’m getting a hug when I walk in here, or they say, This looks like a fancy hotel in a GOOD way because we want people to WANT to come here, and want to come back.
I mean that’s the goal, right? Come on back, lets order some fried chicken and talk awhile. Because I think that’s what Jesus would do.
“…whether we accept or not?” I’m a little late on this post, but did you take your scissors and cut out Jn 3:16? The “free gift of salvation” is available to “all”, but it must be received and acted upon. We must “believe in our heart, and confess with our mouth that Jesus Christ is Lord.” God rejects those who reject his Son. It’s that simple.
I guess with last week’s soup’ and the stat that 78% of church growth occurs between the lost ‘people’ and friends and relatives, I’m thinking more of the language you would use to witness’ or tell about Jesus Christ to an unbeliever’ to begin to let them open their heart’ and think about becoming a believer’ and a part of the body of Christ’-‘communing’ with Him and being filled with the Spirit of God’, looking forward to eternity in His presence’ etc.
Uhhhhh, what is narthex? I have been in church for nine years now and never heard it. Wow.
@Narthex – a narthex is that small divot just below your chin above the intersection of your collarbone. Right???
You made my day! It has taken me years to ween the hospitality team off narthex! I am not fond of lobby, as it sounds like a movie theater, but I will take it over narthex. Since we have the coffee and tea pots and cookies in this location, our youth and family director suggested fellowship room/area I like it.
Next sacred cow: Gospel. the national bishop of the ELCA (Lutheran) recommended years ago to get rid of Gospel in worship and preaching! This is way out there, but newcomers do not know what the Gospel is, either as a word or a concept. So we introduce the reading of the Gospel as The Good News of Jesus.
As a young preacher I received a call one morning from a member of the church asking me where in the bible he could find a certain passage of scripture. I told him it was in one of the gospels. That evening he called me back and told me he had looked and looked and could not find the book of gospels anywhere in the bible.
I think the issue of contextual language is important; going all the way back to the reformation, the call of mission is to preach in the vulgar tongues-speaking of outdated language, when was the last time you used vulgar in that way?
Nevertheless, there are limits to the paradigm. When there is theological weight to a word, we have to pause and consider the reality that being lost is a solid biblical and theological truth that is the primary Problem in a person who is separated from God, alienated from God, and (!) an enemy of God must reckon with at a fundamental level in their lives.
But language guidelines for publishing companies are different than the personal guidelines for your own language used when sitting down with a person in a bar. They can see my expressions, hear my tone of voice, and we probably have a relationship.
Having said all that, I think living as missionaries means at least in part choosing our battles: and making intentional choices about when and where we chose to use confrontational language that is meaningful and loving.
Words do matter. But remember, what might push someone away initially might also draw them to Jesus eventually. It isn’t a simple cookie cutter process to make that determination.
Here in Jersey, for example, direct and unadorned language is a virtue.
Another helpful point: choose your enemies well. You can’t control it obviously 100% but you can think in advance about that group of people (rather than pretending you’ll have none which is a myth).
Someone here wrote: If we want to do more than just bring people to Christ,
Personally, I think that’s the hardest part and I would gladly settle for it. Christ will take over from that point on.
the temple of the Holy Spirit (me, church) went into a local fast food restaurant (or anywhere there are people) on Sunday morning (or any other time for that matter)
AND met with a couple of my friends who believe and are saved (local church, ecclesiastical)
AND went over to a young family ordering their meal
AND actually paid for it with some words like, I had a hard time this week, but God saw me through it and I’d like to celebrate (WORSHIP) that God really does care and love us (witness) by buying your meal this morning. Would that be okay with you?
AND proceeded to have an intimate conversation with my fellow believers in Jesus about what He has done for us personally lately
AND discussed what we are learning about Him. (meeting with other believers on a regular basis)
AND, yes – using and actually reading for ourselves The Bible.
AND, yes, taking food in His Name, remembering His sacrifice.
Just think of the people that could be fed or helped if we weren’t pumping our tithe into the warehouse and just went out and did it like we are supposed to? Look at the money, time and effort saved by not having to pay for a building (great expense), prepare sermons (paid staff) and ministries (Wednesday night supper!).
We would actually have some time to do (working out our salvation) actual ministries and maybe make a difference in the community (loving our neighbors) because we were not always being required to come to the building to keep the corporation going because we are members of the local church.
If we REALLY wanted to get “BIBLICAL” we would see Jesus spoke more against the formalities of the mystery Babylon (priest =senior pastor, religious system), taking money to keep the temple (building & system) going. Jesus spoke more FOR going OUT, loving and doing for others.
Where do we get that we MUST continue the pagan model of temple worship and priestly leadership? Just because early christians merged with the icons and rituals of the pagans, are we compelled to keep revering it as “holy”? Could it be that our modern contemporary church model might be considered by our savior as continuing in mystery Babylon? (gasp)
House churches will become a necessity, but it is not the complete answer to how to do church.
When we begin to BE the church and get that church is not a destination and that worship is done through living everyday and not a song, movement or feeling, then we may start to consider what ministry and missional work really is.
Times are changing. Who knows what will happen tomorrow that may involve our religious freedoms? But I do know that if we don’t stop comparing our worship styles, checking who’s got degrees and worrying about keeping the priests paid, we will never get about the Father’s work like Jesus told us to do.
Let the priests get a self-supporting job and become bi-vocational like everybody else and then let’s hear them tell us what their week was like! Then, we would be more inspired to listen to how to commit to the work of the church.
But then, who am I? Just a wife, mother and grandmother. I couldn’t understand theology for myself without papers to prove my religious education now, could I?
Oh my gosh… “Christianese!” I love it!
My personal pet peeve: “the churched” or “the unchurched.”
I know I’m a little late to the game, but I stumbled across this and had to add it to the list. Hah.
We used to call our church entry the NVL (our pastor’s joke). It stood for Narthex, Vestibule, Lobby – since we could never consistently call it one thing or another. I think entry is a wonderful word to use as substitute. Clear and pithy.