A Visitor’s Perspective: Verbose Nomenclature

September 25, 2007 by

This is part 5 of a 9-part series on attending church from a visitor’s perspective. You can read the original post to get a better understanding of David’s experience visiting churches for the first time.

Besides ancient language we also exclude visitors with our Christian-ese. These are words almost exclusively used in Christian circles. These can include theological terms, religious words and various other words that are not found in our everyday vernacular.

Sometimes we are well meaning, but we use pious words that might exclude people by making them feel less righteous. “Bless” is one of those words. I am still shocked when someone tells me, “Have a blessed day.” I guess it feels like they are pointing out to me how good of a Christian they are–and implying that I am less pious than they.

Especially excluding are words that we use to describe our attempts to introduce others to Christ. When we use words such as “missions” and “evangelism” around our visitors, we are creating an “us vs. them” dichotomy since visitors aren’t engaged in the outreach. I once saw a church that admirably started serving people in their neighborhood. To identify themselves, and their church, they got T-shirts made which read, “This Church has left the building.” I think that’s an attractive message to non-Christians–saying that they aren’t a cloistered group of people only interested in themselves.

Unfortunately their message was undermined by a cute note on their shirt that read, “Gone Outreachin’.” As Christians we know that outreach is an important part of our walk with Christ, and we do it out of love and concern for those that don’t know Jesus. However, when a non-Christian is told that they have been “outreached” it only reinforces their feeling of exclusion.

You might think I am making a big case out of nothing. You might say that the worst that can happen is that a visitor thinks these words are “weird” and get over it. However, once someone uses that pejorative to describe you they have made a chasm between themselves and you. They have acknowledged that they are an outsider and will not be able to fit in. Isn’t that the opposite of the message we are trying to convey?

The book on church visitors: Unwelcome: 50 Ways Churches Drive Away First-Time VisitorsMore:

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David Zimmerman

David Zimmerman is a former pastor who lives in Lake Wylie, S.C., with his wife, Christie, and his step-dog, Murphy. You can also check out his personal blog.
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20 Responses to “A Visitor’s Perspective: Verbose Nomenclature”

  • Ted
    September 25, 2007

    Never let a deacon, or worse a preacher, come up with ad copy or slogans. Unless they’ve got a professional background in advertising, that is. Most of our ‘language’ is stupid, dorky and just plain silly. I work hard to avoid it.

    • Catherine
      January 29, 2011

      I’d add to that the sanctimonious and silly: “May God add his blessing to the reading of his word.” Come on. It is a Bible interpreted and argued by man prior to being “agreed” to by the powers that were/be.

  • Mike Sessler
    September 25, 2007

    That’s the thing. Words have meaning…a lot of meaning. Whenever we produce copy that is seen by the outside world, or speak to those outside the family of faith, we need to choose our words carefully.
    The worst thing we can do when interacting with others is exclude them with our language. This is a big deal, and one that few churches (and Christians) take seriously. Thanks for brining it up.

  • Dan B.
    September 25, 2007

    “Join us for fun and fellowship” is a real winner.

  • David
    September 26, 2007

    Sometimes I refer to “fellowship” as the “f-word.”

  • Jeremiah
    September 26, 2007

    Hold on, establishing a vocabulary is important to all subcultures. It does set them apart and it does show them to be different from people outside of their subculture. And that is the purpose.
    I agree that it is important to be purposeful in our use of language, but that does not mean that we need to do rid ourselves of Christian vocabulary. And to complain about language is a bit silly, because we will constantly need to update our candy-coated Christian words. Language is a living organism and it needs to develop naturally. We should not be afraid of our own vocabulary.
    Just as if I were to try and connect (to avoid the dreaded ‘outreach’ word) with the skaters at the park I would recognize that I wouldn’t be able to use their language, most reasonable people would reasonable people will recognize the use of technical language in church as an extension of our identity as Christians.
    There’s my two cents, that and another two quarters should buy you a cup of coffee.

  • john s.
    September 26, 2007

    David writes:
    When we use words such as “missions” and “evangelism” around our visitors, we are creating an “us vs. them” dichotomy since visitors aren’t engaged in the outreach.
    While I agree with the bulk of the what David says, and I am all for killing the christinese that too many churches talk in, I disagree with this statement. One of the goals of the church IS to create an US vs. THEM dichotomy. We are to be a welcoming family, but it should be clear to unbelievers that they are not part of the family. If you fail to make the dichotomy, they will think that they are part of the family when they are not, and they will never fully understand their need for a savior.
    In addition, the church NEEDS to create a missions mindset in its members. Members of the church must know that there is an us vs. them dichotomy, and that our primary purpose on this earth is to go to THEM and call them to become part of US.
    If we water down the words of evangelism and mission too much, we become like the liberal mainstream denominations that focus on doing good things, but have no sense that they need a savior, and have no burden to reach out to the dying world around them. They have lost the dichotomy between THEM and US, and at times seem more part of THEM than they are of US.

  • Shane
    September 26, 2007

    john s., you’re getting into the distinction between doctrines there. some churches believe that in being born, they are automatically a part of the “us” and they just may not accept it.

  • john s.
    September 26, 2007

    Shane –
    Well, yes and no. There are some churches that teach that once you are baptized in that church, you are sanctified and “covered” as it were. Many of these churches, however, fail to see a distinction between those who are born and baptized into their church and those who are born into Islam, for example. Churches that are very heavily into the ecumenical movement see “many paths” to God. There is no longer any distinction between those who are “saved” and those who are “lost”.
    Regardless of views of covenantalism, and/or sacramental sanctification, there is still a need for the Church to agree with Jesus that HE is the way, the truth and the life, and that no man will come to the Father but through Him. My concern with David’s statement is that this fact not be lost on those who are within the church.
    Please don’t misunderstand me, I don’t think that David is far off course. I am sure that he still believes and accepts the importance of reaching unbelievers. I am just afraid that an unintended consquence of “softening” the language may be that the reality of the chasm between the unbeliever and Christ gets lost, both for the unbeliever and for the people who are in a position to introduce them to Jesus.
    I think that the reality of that chasm is exactly the point that needs to be made. Without the chasm, a believer has no urgency for mission and evangelism, and an unbeliever has no urgency to accept the salvation that only Jesus brings.

  • revolutionfl
    September 26, 2007

    i saw that same shirt and i thought the exact same thing. “man, that’s a cool shirt.” and then i saw the “gone outreachin” part and I was bummed out. we always have to screw it up somehow.

  • David
    September 27, 2007

    The discussion on us-them diachotomy has digressed into sacrimentology- far beyond my point.
    I agree we need to continue to do evangelism. The problem is the word “evangelism” conjures bad images in the minds of unbelievers that we don’t intend to connote. If we simplify the term “evangelism” into concepts that are used in every day vernacular then we will get across our intention to let other people know about this good news we’ve found and avoid unnecessary and inaccurate misunderstandings.

  • Marc Pitman
    September 27, 2007

    I have a similar reaction to the “the church has left the building” logo.
    We use it here at the Vineyard Church of Waterville.
    But I cringe a bit at the “gone outreachin'” Admittedly, it was easier to use the cool logo than create our own. But I’m concerned that unchurched folks may feel “numbered” or put in the cross-hairs by that comment.
    Of course, the point is moot if we’re not out there “doin’ the stuff” (how’s that for tribal language? *grin*).
    I decided it was better to help VCW folks feel like a team and get out there and be nice to people. At least it doesn’t say “gone evangelizing”!

  • Phil
    September 27, 2007

    Heh… That reminds me of a church I was in about 8 years ago. The pastor was going to put on a big outdoor celebration to establish their place in the community and try to get locals to come in. The flier had in large letters, “Good music and lots of preaching!” Needless to say it was a bust.

  • Christiane Li
    September 27, 2007

    If someone wore a shirt in front of me that said “This church has left the building” and didn’t give me some clue somewhere on the same shirt s/he did it b/c s/he was sharing faith, I would immediately think (b/c some of my peeps are in their tweens/twenties & are goth/marilyn manson influenced, etc.) s/he was just being anti-church. And trust me, if I were anti-church, I wouldn’t bother to ask about a t-shirt to find out if s/he meant the exact opposite of what it said. I’d be too busy wanting that person to check out my cool new Radiohead jacket from Hot Topic.

  • Melissa
    September 28, 2007

    I think that we have to take this, as all things, with a grain of salt a heap of sensibility. I think the point is that we have to be aware and intentional about how we speak as a church that makes those on the outside feel uncomfortable to the point that they don’t try to get in.
    I think there’s definitely a place for a distinction between the saved and the lost, but it has to be in the context of something very compelling–“they” want what “we’ve” got in Jesus. When believers are fully engaging God (even if the songs have some Christianese or the church is using ancient words in liturgy), THAT is compelling. People want Jesus when the joy, peace and celebration of Him is contagious.
    I think one of the biggest keys is to avoid churchy language in our communications that are targeted at getting people TO church and in the “filler” parts of the service. The meat, however, has to continue to be the meat. But…if it’s good teaching, then the “big words” are fully explained so that all can understand.

  • Natalie
    September 28, 2007

    I actually think some of this comes down to not just a “holier than thou” attitude but a “better than you” type mindset too. A lot of “churchy” literature, print, and t-shirts boast clever one-liners – but then feel the need to explain them – as if all non-Christian’s reading the material would be confused or need footnotes to help them understand. It makes me think of Andrew Osenga’s “I Love Andy” t-shirts. No website, no additional phraseology. Just enough verbage to make someone ask “Who’s Andy” or “What’s that about?” I ALWAYS ask random people in the mall etc… about their vague t-shirts. They’re great conversation starters and really, that’s why folks wear them. Often its better to spark a conversation than to spell out the details on the flipside of a t-shirt.

  • Hungry and Concerned
    September 28, 2007

    I’m getting two messages when reading these posts. The first is, “we are in control of how people react to us” the second is “it’s our responsibility to first reach the lost and then feed our own.” To address the first message, obviously we cannot control how others react. We can walk in the favor of God and allow him to deal with those people. By those people, I mean all people, saved and unsaved. We were not put on this earth to be liked. We are here to serve whatever God purposed when he created us. It is our responsiblity to find out that purpose and do it. A lot of the time, the lost ARE offended by us. That would not be because we used the word “evangelism.” That would be because no matter how they try to ignore their desire for God, it’s there. Usually, it’s a good sign that they are offended. It could mean that God is dealing with them about it. He is calling to them and they are trying to ignore him. Why do we care if someone gets offended. That’s not our concern. Where in the bible does it say it’s our responsibility to control how people will react? I’m not saying to blatantly attempt to offend someone. I’m saying seek God about what to do and then do it. Consequences of what others think shouldn’t even be considered.
    I agree that words are powerful and should be chosen carefully. The bible tells us that. And I believe that the church is to feed believers. I attend a church that has become so watered down as to not offend anyone that no one acts in the gifts of the spirit any longer and would you believe we’re a non-denominational, spirit-filled congregation?! Well, we used to be anyway. There is no meat being preached. We hear the same messages over and over and frankly, we’re all HUNGRY. As a result, membership has decreased steadily and drastically for the past 4 years. Leadership has become so focused on reaching the lost that they forgot about their flock. We all know what the bible says about shepherds that don’t tend their flock… They are constantly reaching new people but the church is a revolving door. People get saved and then they don’t move past that, they get frustrated and they leave. The church has a responsibility to meet the needs of the saved AND to reach the lost. The most wonderful part of that responsibility is that God carries the burden of it. He does all the work. All we have to be is obedient. God is giving us wisdom and creative ideas to reach people in ways they haven’t been reached before. Let’s stop committeeing about everything and just say, Yes. We should be aware of what is happening outside the church. Heck, we should be in the forefront of whats happening outside the church. That doesn’t mean we have to say things like, “That’s sick!” (meaning good) which goes directly against the word of God Almighty who says we are not sick. There is a fine line between using words to reach people and following the word of God.
    By the way, guarding the heart includes what you speak out of your mouth. What you say over and over again, you will cause to come to pass.

  • Jo
    September 29, 2007

    Why not just ask God to show us what to say through the creative power of His Holy Spirit? I would much rather have His directive. He somehow seems to know all. :) Can any one of us say we know what is best? Let’s go to the Teacher. We need to remember that WE do not lead anyone to Christ; it is the Holy Spirit that does the work. Let’s just BOLDLY be in the right place, at the right time, where we may be a part of the blessing and experience the awesomeness of the power of the Holy Spirit at work through us. God uses the foolish things of the world to confound the wise. I am very pleased to be counted among the foolish. Seek Him first in all that you do. He doesn’t use a cookie cutter. His ways are not our ways. What if you do receive something from a preacher or a deacon – have you set aside your own knowledge and sought God’s knowledge on the matter? What if God IS speaking through that preacher or deacon and it is not for you to understand? I believe when people start addressing concerns such as this that they have begun to deny the power of God. We are commanded to love our brother; no matter what he is doing – where he’s going – what he looks like – what he smells like – etc. And, when we submit to the Holy Spirit and allow Jesus to love on them – WOW! There is no other purpose to live on this earth!!! What an honor and privilege to allow someone to witness and experience the love of Jesus through us. We are indeed mightily blessed!!!! Praise God!!!

  • Gene Mason
    October 3, 2007

    I think the argument here is less about the language than it is that we (“church people”) have so not lived up to our own billing over the years that we have destroyed words like “outreach” and “missions” and “evangelism” through everything from poor understanding and modeling to blatant hypocrasy.
    So I certainly agree with avoiding words that have a negative connotation, and even those that through our misuse have negative baggage attached to them in the minds of our guests. But I think the real issue is that it’s up to us as the church to live out the words we use–otherwise we’ll just be having the same conversation about a new set of words in a few years.

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