We believe in a God who “spoke” the world into existence (Genesis 1:3). This truth is a constant reminder that words and language have power to create. James compared the tongue to a rudder that steers ships, a bit that guides a horse, and even a spark that can start a fire (James 3:3-6). Clearly, God is serious about our words. Scripture is consistent in its call to us to encourage and build up with our words, praise the Lord with our words, and let truth be what our words form. There is much to write and talk about when it comes to glorifying God with our words. But for this post I want to focus on how our words can create a culture and, sometimes, unintentionally create one that is the exact opposite of that which we are trying.
How Language Hurts Missional Culture
For instance, the phrase “go to church” seems so harmless, and anytime we are corrected that we don’t go to church, we are the church, it can be easy to brush it off as nitpicky or prideful. And sometimes it is! But the reality is that this little phrase can be a big deal if used over time. The phrase insinuates that church is an event to attend rather than the adopted family of God. This little phrase can and has helped create generations of Christians that are sitting on the sidelines just viewing Christianity instead of being catalyzed to get in the game and be the church. If I am the church, that changes everything. I am a living being that is a part of a living thing that God created – the church. Now I have to figure out how this living thing is to live and participate in its life. Language is not the only culprit or the only answer, but it can assist us in creating a people who see the church as God’s people not as God’s event. This difference is worth humbly and consistently fighting for, and our language can help this.
Another issue consistently coming up in the church is getting God’s people to see there smaller church community as a day-to-day, life-on-life community instead of something on the mid-week calendar. People are always saying things like, “How was your community group?” or “Which community do you go to?” Not bad questions. But if our goal is to have our smaller community be a family of God’s servants doing life and mission together, then we want to use language that constantly reminds people of that truth. If you talk as if your communities only exist once a week, your community will believe it only exists once a week.
In addition, we love to use acronyms for everything. Unfortunately, you get new people wondering, “What in the world is the MC? Or GG? And why it is conflicting with Sarah’s DNA?” And it just makes everyone wonder WWJD in this situation. If you have insider and outsider languages, you will have insiders and outsiders. If joining your church requires a glossary, you’re using poor language.
Our language can easily isolate or train people to believe God is calling them to set aside one day or evening instead of setting aside their entire lives. We don’t want to confuse those two!
There are a few ways to combat our poor language. One is to constantly explain your church’s language - what it is and what it isn’t. Try to minimize acronyms, and if you use them be ready to explain them. Constantly be sharing what God created this community to be and have explanations in your announcements, literature, and website.
For instance, instead of announcing that your church’s missional communities meet on Wednesday night, announce that you have missional communities and explain what those are. You might say something like, “We believe the church is a big family made up of smaller families, and these smaller families meet throughout the week as missional communities. A missional community, or MC, is a small family of God that is participating with God to bring the good news of Jesus to our city. You can meet with so-and-so about joining a family for a meal this Wednesday night.” Yes, it will make announcements a bit longer, but it is a teaching moment for new people and a reminder for others that MC’s are not meant to simply be a weekly potluck. It is worth restating this over and over as we are so prone to forget!
Never assume that people know what you are talking about or what your church’s language means but always explain everything. If you are calling your whole church to be “missionaries,” explain that you mean all of God’s people are missionaries in all of life and that you don’t mean to imply that the whole church should move into a hut in Papua New Guinea this next week – unless you want them to all move to a hut in Papua New Guinea, then have them do that. I don’t even know if Papua New Guinea has huts, but I digress. Minimalize church lingo. Inevitably you will have some, so go out of your way to explain it as often as possible. This goes a long way in making outsiders, newcomers, and unbelievers feel like they belong.
Another helpful language tool is to begin referring to the community as just that and the meeting as a “community meeting.” This way people will begin asking, “How was your MCM or missional community meeting?” They might ask, “How was your small group’s dinner?” This helps reiterate that your small groups eat dinner together but are much more than just that one meal. Constantly differentiate between what your community is and what it does by using different language for both. We are a “community group,” and we have “weekly community outings.” This will take time to create, but it will catch on. People will recognize the difference, and visitors and unbelievers will begin to sense that something is different too!
Think through what you are trying to accomplish on Sunday’s and what to call that. There is a difference between a service and a gathering. A Sunday service conveys that this is something here to serve you and for you to consume, which isn’t bad if this is what you are going for. A gathering, though, creates a posture that this is something in which you participate. In the Soma family, we try to be very intentional about inviting God’s people to participate in God’s work. We use the term “gathering” to help create this culture. A gathering can help facilitate the belief that we are the church, and we are gathering together on a Sunday, rather than the church being a service that we attend.
We expect God’s people to gather together to serve, worship, and build up one another so they can then be sent out to do the same in the world.
Preachers and teachers should be especially considerate with the language they use. It can be very easy to slip into using a bunch of doctrinal terms, Greek words, and bible character references as if everyone knows who or what you are talking about. I remember growing up with a leader named Paul, and he was always saying, “Paul said this” or “Paul wrote that.” I always thought he was talking about himself in the first person, and I was very confused. Telling people who Paul is, even briefly, adds so much to his writing. You could say something like, “This dude, Paul, was essentially a terrorist who killed Christians until he met Jesus.” One quick sentence can end a lot of confusion and allow the listener to engage more with the content of the message rather than trying to figure out the characters or writers.
Many doctrinal terms can be explained with a mere sentence or two, allowing the listener to learn and understand this doctrinal language rather than being lost with every term. Try to never use Greek or Hebrew words, unless absolutely necessary, as we want to teach in the language of our listeners. We don’t need to preach our homework but rather the good news message that God has given us. Being sloppy by thinking that everyone knows what we are talking about is assuming too much and will isolate the unbeliever or new believer, creating missed opportunities to share the gospel with the lost or help the new believer grow in maturity. Let us be considerate and take the extra time to explain every doctrinal term and use language that is common to our context and culture. This is the very art of teaching, is it not?
Lazy Language with the Gospel
I have caught myself often being sloppy with the gospel. Even we gospel-centered disciple makers can be lazy and hear of people’s sins and issues and toss out a quick, “You just need to believe the gospel.” We can take this precious word and toss it around, abuse, overuse, and mishandle it until it loses its meaning. This has already happened as many think “gospel” is simply a genre of music and others a denomination or theological camp. The gospel is not just a word; it is good news. Don’t just tell people to believe the gospel but tell them what this “good news” is. Pray through what aspect of the gospel they may need to hear. Do they need a reminder of the good news of the forgiveness won for them on the cross? Do they need a reminder of the good news that Jesus is alive and will return one day to make all things new? Maybe they feel hopeless to beat sin and need to hear the good news that Jesus sent the Spirit to dwell in us. Explaining the good news of the gospel is powerful for everyone who speaks and hears it!
Additionally, use God’s Word to show these truths. God’s Word is rich with explanations of the good news and is our best tool for revealing all that Christ accomplished for us on the cross. Use God’s Word to explain the gospel, and others will start looking to God’s Word on their own to understand the gospel!
For instance, if someone is struggling with guilt and shame and scared to confess their sins, I might take them to John 3 to illustrate how Jesus came not to condemn the world but to save it. God’s Word says we were condemned already. I would explain the good news that Jesus knows their sin, came to rescue them, and that his blood washes their sin away. I would encourage them be sharing that Christ died for them while they were still sinners, so they are free to confess their sin and walk away from it. A conversation like this, with prayer and scripture, is more powerful than simply saying, “You just need to believe the gospel.”
Language is a gift. Let us use it wisely and intentionally to create a culture that encourages and builds up generations to love and serve Jesus as his church!
Jake Chambers (@JakeJayChambers) is a member of Jesus’ bride - the church. He is the husband to his beautiful bride Lindsey, and a daddy to his boy Ezra. Jake is passionate about seeing the gospel both transform lives and create communities that love Jesus, the city, and the lost. He currently serves Red Door Church through leading, preaching, equipping, and pastoring. You can read more of his writing at reddoorlife.tv.