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Church words

Church words

As some readers know, I make my living as a communications consultant, working primarily within the church. I frequently write and edit copy intended for church audiences. As a result I come across words, phrases and rhetorical strategies that are distinctive to the church. For instance, people in the church “live into” things more often that people in the wider culture, and our prayer is “deep” as unfailingly as the children in Lake Wobegon are above average.


I think most church folks have gotten the idea that you can’t ask newcomers to meet you in the narthex after the doxology for catechesis and expect anybody to show up, but there are still words that crop up in church publications and conversations that suggest that we think we are up to something that sets us apart from other people, which in some cases we are, and in some cases we are not.

Yesterday on my firm’s Facebook page I wrote facetiously that to avoid the sort of reflexive solemnity that sometimes mars church writing none of our clients would be “breaking bread” this year; they were all just going to eat. Later on my own page I said that I personally was going to try not to be missional (a word that Word does not recognize), but that I couldn’t make any promises because I had to make a living and the word, if it is a word, is hard to avoid using at the moment.

All this is by way of asking two things, one in good fun and the other a bit more serious. The first, what church words and phrases get on your nerves? The second is what words that either land awkwardly upon the ear, or have some negative connotations, does the church have to fight for nonetheless?

To the first question, as for me and my household, we will use the words disciple and fellowship exclusively as nouns. Concerning the second, I think that we have to fight for the word evangelism because in our desire not to be the kinds of Christians who try to harangue people into believing in God we have in many instances abandoned efforts to make our churches attractive to our friends and neighbors. Let’s call evangelism what it is, and then let’s do it.

On the other hand, while I am at ease with the word mission, I feel silly using the word missional, but find that sometimes I can’t get around it. Who has a graceful adjectival alternative? I am more uncomfortable with the word missionary. I understand we need a word for people who are on a mission, and that each of us should participate in God’s work in the world. But it doesn’t seem to me that white Christians get to determine when it is appropriate to begin using the word “missionary.” We can’t pretend that the wounds inflicted by white Christian missionaries around the globe have healed, we can’t pretend that we don’t continue to benefit from the systems of domination that many of those missionaries helped to build, and we shouldn’t act as though the statute of limitations on taking offense to this word has run out.

Your turn.

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Scott Knitter

There's a difference between meaningless jargon and specific terms for things. Often bewailed are terms like narthex and undercroft, which are perfectly fine architectural terms for parts of a church. When addressing visitors, it's polite to say what one means ("...the narthex, which is the lobby out there just beyond the double doors"), but using the term at all is offensive to some. To that, I'd say we should give people credit for some ability to learn new words, and give them a chance to learn them. The real problem is the bewildering in-speak like "We need to be in conversation about living into what it means to be church." (I've never understood what happens to the article in front of "church" in such phrases.)

So hooray for Ed Stetzer, whom Jason mentioned, for recognizing people's capacity for learning new terms that mean specific things in a particular place. That's not meaningless jargon.

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Jason Wells

Rather than get negative about our words, could we talk about what purpose they serve and how to introduce people to them?

For years the evangelical churches tried exactly this: eliminating churchy-sounding terms so that there is a "message in the worship center" instead of a "sermon in the sanctuary."

Part of the trouble is that evangelicals are backing away from that position now. Ed Stetzer has spoken about the fact that people actually can learn new words! His primary example is Starbucks. (Venti macchiato, anyone?) They have their own language and actually have a plan on how to teach it to outsiders.

The deeper question is asking the purpose behind the lingo. The evangelicals took a few decades to learn the purpose, so we can either learn their lesson or look like we are stuck in the 1990s.

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Jesse Zink

Can we start another thread about church words that have fallen into disuse but which we want to reclaim? At the top of my list is judgement, which, as used in the Bible, is a piece of profoundly good news—but it is so rarely heard that way these days.

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Marshall Scott

I think I'm on board with Tobias in this. Now, like most of us educated by Blessed Marion of Sewanee, I'm not romantic about a lot of details. I'm clear that a chasuble is a fourth century poncho established into liturgical use, and now usually decorated for that context. I know that we put the card called a pall on top of the chalice because birds once had pretty much free rein in churches (and I've had the occasional bird to contend with in contemporary churches, not to mention pieces of ceiling tile).

That said, I think some words are not interchangeable. I want to hold to "formation," for example, because these days "education" is pretty much an intellectual enterprise, focused on accumulating facts rather than applying them for a whole life. As for mission: it is a word widely used in non-religious organizations. Every major corporation has a mission statement. We follow carefully political and military missions, watching especially for "mission creep." There have been some atrocious missionaries who grossly misused mission institutions. That doesn't mean "mission" as a concept is a bad word. For that matter, I fear that's why we use the neologism "missional:" we're uncomfortable with the proper adjective of "missionary" - which itself became distorted when we stopped using it as an adjective and started using is as a shorthand for the missionary person.

Folks here know I wear clericals in the hospital, and most know why. It is a tool that, for good and ill, raises assumptions from almost all who see it. The problem is not the collar, but how some other folks have worked while wearing one. My response is not to drop the collar, but to take care how I work while wearing one. With the collar, and with these words - all tools available to us - the issue is how they've been used; and the only meaningful response is how we use them going forward.

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tobias haller

I recall from years ago an interview on the Dick Cavett Show in which Cavett asked a guest physicists a question and then said, "Could you describe it in layman's terms?" The physicist started to say something, stopped, looked a bit bemused, and finally said, "There are no layman's terms."

While I agree about wanting to communicate effectively, surely we err when we accommodate ignorance rather than offering an explanation. We miss what is distinctive or precise in the interest of giving a general, but wrong, impression. Surely not a good idea, nor effective communication.

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