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Church Vocabulary Lesson

Church Vocabulary Lesson

June 13, 2011 by

What I’m about to say may seem ridiculously basic. Ready? Here goes:

Words communicate.

Mmhmm. Call me Captain Obvious.

OK, but seriously. If you’ve been in the church communications world for much time at all, you likely recognize that everything communicates something. That’s why we get wrapped up in conversations about adding diaper changing stations to the men’s restrooms and eliminating those front-row, “Reserved for Pastor” parking spaces. That’s good stuff. But how long has it been since you assessed the actual words your church is throwing around? Here are my current pet-peeves:

Push, as in, “We need to push people into Membership Class” or “We need a volunteer push for Vacation Bible School.” The problem is that people don’t want to be pushed into anything. They don’t mind being invited, encouraged, or even challenged. But pushed? No thanks. I know, I know, none of us would ever use those words from the pulpit or in our bulletins. But if we’re using them in staff meetings or leadership gatherings, they influence how we approach people and challenges.

Insider language. This has been covered by dozens of blogs—like this one—but I wanted to offer it up as a reminder. Review your communication through the eyes of someone who has no idea what you’re talking about and fix what could feel exclusive. Better yet, have someone review it who really doesn’t know. In addition to words specific to your church environment, be careful with “church words” in general—even words you think people probably know … like gospel. Yes, really. I’m not saying you shouldn’t use such vocabulary at all; I’m only suggesting that we not leave people in the dust with it. Oh, and decide you hate acronyms and eliminate them. No matter how cute they are.

Talking about “the unchurched” as if they’re not in the room, as in, “Be sure to invite your unchurched friends!” and “Movie Night is a terrific evangelism opportunity!” Imagine being a first-time guest reading those words. Might you think, “Ummm . . . so what exactly is going to happen at Movie Night?” Perhaps this will be more controversial than I expect, but if you’ve developed an invitational culture in your church, and if you’ve provided invitational tools (e.g., a good website, message series postcards, e-vites), your church family won’t require such direction, and your guests won’t be wondering about the possibility of an altar call at a swimming party.

Sermon. You ever looked up the definition of sermon? It’s a “religious talk” or a “long lecture on behavior.” Oh boy! Consider using message or teaching.

!, as in the exclamatory statements tacked on to every announcement. “Don’t miss it!” “You’ve gotta check this out!” “Stop at the Information Desk to learn more!” “It’s a must-see family event!” Exclamation points aren’t inherently evil, of course, but if we overuse them—and the phrases they tend to accompany—a couple of things happen. First, people become overwhelmed. They’re busy with life in general, so how can they possibly fit in all of the “You’ve gotta!” stuff? Second, our brand suffers. Why? Let’s be honest: Are we really delivering on all of those exclamation points? Is that business meeting really not-to-be-missed? Will our families actually have the time of their lives? By the way, using multiple exclamation points actually is evil.

Please know that I share these thoughts from a place of humility. I’ve goofed a time or two or 147 in this regard. Early in my church communications journey, I was responsible for writing copy for a direct mail piece advertising our facility’s grand opening. I’m a wordsmith, and so I described our children’s ministry program as loud. Yup. Not energetic or engaging. Not even fun. Loud. Eek.

I could share more of those gems, but I’d rather know yours. So how about it? What words are you purposefully using—and not using—in your environment?

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

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Kelley Hartnett


Kelley Hartnett spent five years as director of communications for a large, established church, but has now shifted her attention to new churches. Currently, she’s serving as director of culture and connections for The Way, a missional church plant in a suburb of St. Louis.
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18 Responses to “Church Vocabulary Lesson”

  • Sim
    June 13, 2011

    I love this entire post. All of it.
    Especially the ‘Acronym Hatred’. That should be taught early-on in Sunday School.

    Also, I really can’t stand the word ‘Dynamic’ right now. It’s all over the place outside of the Church; let’s not bring it in.

    Oh, and it’s astonishing how popular “…” is becoming! It’s truly replacing the comma.


  • Kathy
    June 13, 2011

    Great article. And even better discussion point.
    I’d add always, always publish locations (room numbers to meetings/events). Quit using abbreviations (including scripture references on PowerPoint/Keynote presentations). And tell people what the purpose of the ministry or event is for – they aren’t going to be able to necessarily guess.


  • Jason
    June 13, 2011

    Excellent post! One of the communication problems I think many churches have is that there is no thought given to communication as a ministry, especially not as a professional one. I don’t mean either that the church go looking for a local business or someone with a degree in marketing or an English Major. But professionalism in general is seriously lacking and many times the people in charge of ministries and creating the bulletin inserts and messages to be sent out over email and posted on the church website are a ragtag disorganized bunch.
    Many people in local congregations are in essence part of the communications ministry without anyone knowing it, since no one thinks of it that way. If they did, I would suppose the sat down a few times a year to go over message construction and preferred methods of communication and thinking about target groups and how to reach them. In my experience though, it seems as if this is an after thought, and occasionally some forethought goes into it.
    I don’t say all this to complain, I just think that if we are seeing the same thing happening over and over and wondering why nothing changes (a reason I believe exclamation points have become so prevalent, out of desperation), we ought DO something about it!!!!!


  • Kellen
    June 13, 2011

    One that really bugs me now is “Relevant.” I’m a seminary student, and one who doesn’t really enjoy going to church. So I understand that churches need to offer something to make me want to be there. But I almost feel that if you call yourself “Relevant,” you already aren’t. It tends to mean you are doing what everyone else already thought of, and you aren’t really innovating or being creative, just copying.


  • Ken
    June 13, 2011

    “Mark your calendar!” or “Save the date!” As if I don’t have enough intelligence and have to be instructed by the church how to manage my calendar.


  • Lisa
    June 13, 2011

    Laughing out loud, and WITH you, and as a perfect example as a one of the once “unchurched”, now churched. :)

    Having moved last year and partaking in the dreaded new church “shopping” experience, I was hyper aware of the “Christianese” I was hearing everywhere! Even at the more “relevant” churches!

    Here’s a few of the words that make me cringe a little, especially when I’m outside of my church box or bubble. Fellowship. Testimony. Salvation. Born again. They either sound too inclusive, exclusive or overly, hauntingly, uncomfortably religious. And everything, everywhere (not just at church) seems to be AMAAAAAAAAAZING!!!

    Concepts that explained in church lingo, that would stop me to pause, scratch my head and think “hmph” to myself. Fasting. Tithing/ being obedient. Sharing the gospel/truth/Jesus.

    And then there are a few of the concepts that would creep me out if I were newer on my journey of faith..”the Holy Spirit moving someone,” “the demon/devil/evil one” doing or encouraging anything, “THE RAPTURE.” I understand about all of that NOW, and value it deeply. However, there was a time that had I been (or when I was) at a church that gave me too much of that in a concentrated dose, without a lot of other non-churchy lingo to dilute the mix, it would’ve been awkward and intimidating. I would’ve walked out and maybe not walked back in.

    Being a consumer of church marketing, I’m writing here on an industry type blog, a little out of context. But the basic idea Kelley addresses so honestly, is that much can be lost in translation. This applies to the writer or reader. The speaker or the listenere. And this I know from having a Japanese side of the family and an American side of the family. The same is true when I’m in the midst of conversations with my churched/unchurched, seeker/believer, religious/not so religious/other religion kind of friends and family. We shouldn’t conform to the world in our beliefs (when in Rome…), but if we fail to find a way to communicate and share what we KNOW to be true, WHO we know to be true- all will be wasted and lost upon deaf ears, blank stares or that easy walk away mentality.


  • Brit Windel
    June 13, 2011

    Well I use the ‘!’ all the time! No really i just yelled that really loud….


  • Kelley
    June 13, 2011

    Sim, I’m guilty of using “…” WAAAAAY too much. When I read your comment, I panicked a bit about how many times I likely used it in this post! Just once, though. Whew. Not so bad.

    Kathy, thanks for adding your thoughts. Being a last-picked-on-the-playground type, I’m hyper-sensitive to thinks that could feel exclusive, and little things like avoiding abbreviations and offering up locations goes a LONG way.

    Jason, AGREED! (!!!!)

    Kellen, I wonder about “authentic,” too. Jon, thanks for sharing Phil’s article about relevance. He’s great, isn’t he?

    Ken, I’m guilty of that one. Oops.

    Lisa, thank you SO much for sharing the perspective of the “formerly unchurched.” Fellowship is a word that bugs me, too.

    Brit, I’m so glad you hollered because now I’ve found your blog! :)


  • Michael Buckingham
    June 13, 2011

    I’m guilty of “…” too, Kevin’s kicked me for it a few times, I’ve tried to stop doing it but…I just really like them. Commas are boring.

    I will say I don’t know that we need to get tied up in particulars, though certainly aware and there are plenty of words we overuse or misuse. However, we do need to constantly ask and look at how we are communicating and how people are receiving it.

    For example it’s not whether you say authentic teaching, relevant teaching, etc. It’s the fact that you have to say it at all. Just getting rid of the word or replacing it with another isn’t the point. Go read Apple’s copy. Listen to how Steve Jobs unveils a new feature. He doesn’t try to talk you into how great it is, and doesn’t need to because they spend the time making it great.


    • Kelley
      June 14, 2011

      Michael, that’s what I meant by my overly succinct “I wonder about ‘authentic,’ too,” and I’m glad you took the time to say more. :) It’s like this: If someone asks me to describe myself, I hope “authentic” doesn’t come out of my mouth; I hope my responses ARE authentic.

      And now my head hurts because I include “Christ-follower” in my bio and maybe that’s a similar thing. Someone recently posted that a cherry tree doesn’t produce cherries to prove it’s a cherry tree; it produces cherries because it IS a cherry tree. But that’s a whole other conversation, I suppose.


  • Undercover Nun
    June 16, 2011

    One expression I detest is “reach out.” It’s bad enough when used in business, but it’s even worse when used by the church. As with “the unchurched,” it’s an exclusionary thing. If I’m going to “reach out” to you, then I perceive you as other, as outside. “St. Swithin’s pledges to reach out to the LGBT community” makes me gag every time I see it. If the LGBT community isn’t already in your midst, no reaching out is going to be effective. It works with any other group in place of “LGBT.” Try reading it as “autistic and Asperger community” or “deaf community” or even an ethnic group.

    Authentic is such an important word that we have to be careful not to water it down. I tend to use it sparingly in conversation and never in a broadcast-type communication.


  • Mark
    June 16, 2011

    Something I’ve started to become aware of is how in our relatively affluent urban parish we often talk about people in need–the hungry, the poor, the homeless–as somebody else whom we need to help, assuming that they are not in the room. Instead of just saying “please bring cereal and canned goods and we’ll deliver them to the food pantry, which helps people in need,” why not say “please bring cereal and canned goods for the food pantry, which is open on Saturday mornings if you need food.”


    • Kelley
      June 17, 2011

      Undercover Nun (wish I knew your name), thanks for sharing your thoughts. I think about “us and them” language a lot, too.

      Mark, that’s a fantastic point. It’s funny (sad-funny, not funny-funny) how easy it is to overlook the obvious. Great perspective!


  • ozonegal
    June 20, 2011

    @mark- great comment. @ my church i’ve been the one to direct folks to various charitable orgs for years. i’ve been affected by the current economy and am now contacting these same places myself.


  • Lynn Partridge
    January 2, 2012

    Great article, and comments, too. <— note use of commas and no exclamation point

    I got a little alarmed at the comments about the word "fellowship" sounding creepy. I'm totally willing to suggest a change to the higher ups at my church, but what else do we call what is now the fellowship hall?

    I asked my son, who suggested "camaraderie hall", but that's too socialist-sounding (would scare away Republicans.)

    "Multipurpose room" sounds too 70s (would scare me away.)

    "Place we hang out" sounds too informal (would scare old people away, except the hippies.)

    What are some good names for that big room where everything happens other than worship services?


    • Heather
      January 29, 2013

      Would the “social hall” be any better? haha! I’m not sure I mind the word “fellowship”. Don’t most people know the definition regardless of if they’re churched/unchurched?

      I just found this website – loving all the articles. I’m classic for using “…” when I’m emailing someone. I like how it sounds like I’m talking, a pause in what I’m saying. I find myself constantly removing them from what I’m publishing at my church. :)


      • Kevin D. Hendricks
        January 31, 2013

        Ah, the ellipses. I’m not sure how or why that’s cropped up in people’s writing, but I’m seeing it all the time. Can’t stand it.



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