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3 Kinds of Insider Language That Keep People Away From Your Church


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:

3 Kinds of language ccb1) Christianese.

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!

3. Platitudes.

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.

Steve Caton
Steve Caton
Steve Caton has been building teams and nurturing innovative growing organizations for over 30 years, successfully expanding a variety of companies such as The Giving Crowd, Newdea and Christianity.com. Steve is most recognized for his work at Church Community Builder where he assisted in catalyzing an eight-year period of double-digit growth and service to over 4,800 churches. Steve is passionate about Kingdom causes and has authored hundreds of articles and ebooks about effective leadership and organizational health. Currently, Steve is the Chief Growth Officer at Generis where he works alongside a team of over 45 generosity and leadership experts to increase their reach and impact.  


  1. This is a topic I have talked about for years and tried to steer ministry leaders toward the right words so the message isn’t lost. One word I have struggled to find a suitable substitute for is the word “fellowship.” No one outside the church uses that word and the unchurched are leery of attending something when they don’t know what it is. I’ve asked around for years…had words suggested like “social”, “get-together,” etc. but I haven’t really found a word that I like. Any suggestions?

    • Good question, Troy! That is a tough one! I think that outside the church, people have get-togethers, socials, open-houses, gatherings . . . I tend to like “gathering” the best and have used this for a prayer gathering I host once a month for our school moms to get together and pray. Not all of them are strong in their faith, so I like to steer clear of “insider language.”

      “Come to our church gathering next Sunday to eat and get to know one another better” – or something along these lines would work well.

    • Gathering is a good term and so is “community” in my opinion. Regardless of context, I think most people resonate with the desire for greater community in their lives. I see the term used in many secular and religious settings so I think it crosses those boundaries well.

  2. Thanks for hitting the nail square on the head. Tell me, how would you approach this subject with leadership and help them understand that they are speaking this insider focused language?

    • Uggg . . . I think approaching “insider language” with pastors is a touchy subject. Sometimes I count on (two) hands how many times I hear the word “midst” in the announcements, prayer, sermon . . among other insider speak. I think we need to encourage and be proactive in eliminating “Christianese” as church communicators and help instruct those making announcements and leading worship. Perhaps send your pastor a link to this article and suggest a time to meet and gracefully ask permission to share some insights regarding “insider language?” May the Holy Spirit lead you!

    • As Lauren said, this can be a touchy subject. I like the insights she provided. I would also add that it has been helpful in my experience to come back to a core question: “who are we really trying to reach?” The answer to this question will help you address all kinds of decisions and “messaging” is one of them. If the person you are really seeking to reach with your ministry is a non-Christian, that should inform how you communicate and what terminology you try to avoid.

      If your church has a solid answer to this question, you can leverage that to approach leadership and have a conversation about how well our communications approach aligns with the answer. If you have never explored the answer to that question, I would highly recommend doing so. As a church, though we want to reach as many people as possible, we MUST have a core target audience. We cannot be all things to all people. Define your target and speak clearly to them. You will see greater success in reaching those people. Others will also be attracted to the fact that you clearly know who you are and who you aren’t.

      Hope that helps!


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