Language matters. How we use it can either make you feel a part of the conversation or on the outside of a club using a secret code. Perhaps, for you, church communication is a piece of cake, but you’ve heard through the grapevine that some folks miss the point so much they think you’re off your rocker. You can preach till the cows come home, and even though it is clear as a bell to you, others seem to have their wires crossed. Are you caught between a rock and a hard place trying to make a connection with visitors?
If you understood that, most likely either you’re a native English speaker or you’ve spent a good amount of time immersed in an English-speaking culture. If I were to pop that paragraph into Google Translate and present the result to a Chinese speaker, he would think I’m crazy. Idioms are a fascinating part of language because they’re so highly cultural — someone can understand the words and not even begin to understand the meaning, resulting in an awkward interaction and lots of confusion.
What does this have to do with church? Everything. Try this out on your next visitor:
After service we will be gathering at Connection Central to hear from John and Susan. They have a burden for the lost of Guatemala and will be sharing the impact of the recent outreach to witness and love on the youth in Guatemala City.”
Churches are full of insider language that looks nonsensical or even negative to an outsider. This is language we don’t even think about because we’re so used to it … but the people we’re trying to reach often aren’t. Words like ‘lost’ and ‘witness’ can be confusing and even seem superior to someone who is not familiar with those terms. And what exactly are they going to do to those children — should we call the cops?
Communication breaks down when the speaker’s meaning isn’t accurately conveyed to or interpreted by the listener. And whether you are preaching from a pulpit on a Sunday morning, sending out a newsletter, or writing the church bulletin, the burden of the communication is on us to reach the audience. We need to be aware of the kinds of language we use that make the very people we’re trying to reach feel like outsiders.
Here are three Kinds of Insider Language That Keep People Away from Your Church:
There are a lot of ‘church idioms’. I carry my cross and try not to throw my pearls before swine, and just let the dead bury the dead thanking Yahweh that I am saved by the lamb! Huh? To the untrained ear that sounds like Charlie Brown’s teacher. “Whaaa-whaaaa-whaa.” Many of these phrases are scriptural references we take for granted since we have the context in our heads. But if we care about reaching the people in our communities who haven’t spent years in churches, we need to use inclusive language.
2) Church-specific words.
In addition to the common Christianese, many churches create a language that is specific to just their church. When we send new parents off to ‘The Explorers’ Room’ and tell them ‘The Edge’ meets on Wednesday nights, there’s an extra layer of confusion added. Your guests have no idea what either ‘The Edge’ is nor what or where the ‘Explorers’ Room’ is. They’re left to glean everything from context, which, while possible, is an added a barrier to entry. Be aware of the special language you have created in your church, and be aware of how it pushes the status of ‘outsider’ on visitors looking in. Even if you have a great team of greeters making guests feel welcome, visiting a new church can be stressful, and speaking plainly will help alleviate that!
When we are not sure what to say, we often turn to platitudes. When your neighbor tells you about their struggle to deal with their son who is making bad choices, we say ‘hate the sin, love the sinner’. This sounds good but doesn’t actually help her know how to connect with her child. To a friend is facing a difficult decision: ‘let go and let God’. Well thanks for that. Or the one I dislike the most — a grieving friend is told ‘God never gives you more than you can handle’. It’s too easy to fall back on churchy phrases as substitutes for actually reaching out to people and caring about what’s going on in their lives. Or maybe it feels less ‘Christian’ to just sit down and listen to someone who’s struggling instead of offering a platitude about God — but it expresses the love of God to them much better. Your listening ear and compassion is much more valuable than any saying that could be printed on a bumper sticker.
Coming to church is a huge step for many people. It can make them feel uncomfortable and vulnerable. When we use language that’s so foreign to them, it reinforces the idea that they’re outsiders, that they don’t belong. It may be difficult to be mindful of what we say and how we say it, to work to minimize the insider language and ‘church idioms’ we use, but it makes your church more welcoming to the people who most need to be welcomed in. And that’s worth it.