“I’m Sorry, What?”

lost-and-confused-imageWithin every profession, service industry, and organization, there are secret languages understood only by its patrons. For example, walk into a Starbucks and listen to the customers order their favorite drink. You are likely to hear a combination of words and phrases that would lead you to believe aliens had landed from the far side of the moon. My usual Starbucks order sounds like this, “I’ll have a venti bold with no room.” What I am saying to the barista is this, “I will have your largest and strongest coffee, and by the way, I do not need room for cream.” Businesses have created environments that require consumers to learn a language specific to the product they wish to consume. This may or may not be intentional. What they are saying is this, “If you want to be part of our group you need to learn our language.” Sound unfair? Before you answer, think about the church?

Before we blame businesses for requiring us to learn a foreign language, let’s look at how the Christian church is at times guilty of the same practice. I believe most would agree that Christians have a specific lingo and vernacular that we are comfortable with. We use phrases and words that may leave the first-time guest in our services scratching their head and asking, “What are they talking about?” We use words such as advent, apostle, disciple, rapture, righteous, sanctification, elect, trinity, covenant, redemption, and salvation much like we would car, home, cheeseburger, chair, or grass. Phrases such as “washed in the blood”, “give your heart to Jesus”, “profession of faith”, and “walk down the aisle” roll off our church-influenced tongues the same as “turn off the light”, “answer the phone”, and “wash the car.” Think of the questions that must run through the mind of the person who has never been in church before: “Is that going to hurt?”, “You’re asking me to do what?”, “Is that legal?” I may be exaggerating a bit, but I think you get my point.

As a pastor, I believe the church has a responsibility to remove barriers that keep individuals with no personal relationship with Jesus Christ from coming to know Him. Barriers such as personal preferences, fear, and past hurt are hard enough to overcome without imposing a new language for which Rosetta Stone hasn’t even written software yet. I am becoming increasingly aware the guests in our worship services have no idea what we are talking about at times. What should we do? First, it is important to acknowledge the fact that we are guilty of speaking “church.” Second, I believe every ministry leader should ask this question when communicating: “Will the words I have written and spoken be clearly understood by someone who has never been in church before?” We owe it to the first-time guest, the seeker, and the believer desiring to serve the Lord our commitment to remove the barriers that would hinder them – including our church language.

2 thoughts on ““I’m Sorry, What?”

  1. Recommendations for better options? Agree that we need to be intentionally sensitive and aware. Some of our terms are unfamiliar or foreign because they are specific to the Bible. That becomes occasion for edification and education, hopefully in the context of building relationships. This is not new tension. I have yet to find a meaningful way to communicate truth without some of these terms. I am open. Thanks!

  2. I agree some of our terms are specific to doctrine and we can never substitute when there is no suitable and faithful substitute. Perhaps when specific terms are used we intentionally use it as a teaching moment where possible.

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