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.
Recently I made a film that tells the story of a church that forgot about it’s true mission, you can learn more about how you can use this film to bring vibrant health back to your ministry.
Thom Schultz is the President of Group Publishing and author of Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore and Why Nobody Wants to Be Around Christians Anymore and Director of When God Left the Building
2 thoughts on “Anti-Missional Language”
“Churched” and “unchurched” are similar churchy jargon. I heard a woman say, ‘What??” when one of those words was used.
Thom, One way I have found to help us shed language which does not help us as we seek to engage people outside the faith but inside our reach is to do “man on the street” interviews. Here’s how it works!
1. Buy $5 Starbuck’s gift cards
2. Enlist the help of someone to video your interactions (please make sure you ask permission before you video anyone)
3. Put together 4 different lists of 5 Christian words that you believe could be misconstrued by those who are outside the faith.
4. Approach people on the street and ask for their help. Be upfront about why you are doing what you are doing.
5. Inform them that you are handing out $5 Starbuck’s gift cards to anyone who will take 5 minutes to react to 5 different words Christians often use.
6. Alternate between the 4 lists to make sure you have a broad sampling
7. Share these responses with the people in your faith community
8. Have a “fearless conversation” over the implications of these interviews
9. Make some decisions on which words need to be discarded when talking to those outside the church
10. Brainstorm new and fresh language that would be more engaging and inviting