What does “will” mean?" my child asked. Lately, with inquisitive young children, our family devotions have taken twice as long as it does to read the children’s Bible story. I love getting interrupted by questions like, “Where does God live?”, “Why did the fish have to eat Jonah?”, or “How did Baby Jesus grow?” This evening, as we read about the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, I explained that Jesus taught us God’s will. “Someone’s will,” I said, trying to figure out how to word it, “is ... what someone wants to have happen.” It wasn’t until my toddler asked about what the phrase meant that it occurred to me: We seldom use “will” as a noun in our vocabulary anymore outside of the legal document. If I use the term “God’s will” with college students, do they know what to make of that phrase?
In campus ministry, I try to make it clear that everyone, regardless of what they believe, is welcome to attend our gatherings. But if I truly want to include people from any belief system, I need to be attentive to the language I use when talking about faith. It’s so easy for me to revert to insider Christian language, to default to using the shorthand phrases I’ve used most of my life for theological concepts.
It’s not that Christian lingo or discourse never has a place. Every group of people brought together by beliefs, interests, or culture ends up having unique terminology that is taken for granted by their people. (My friends roll their eyes whenever I start geeking out with other sourdough bakers about “peak fermentation,” “autolyse,” or “hydration levels.”) We use shorthand for theological topics because we can carry large concepts within single words or phrases such as “redemption,” “predestination,” or “atonement theory.” Often during in-depth theological conversations we need a word or phrase to convey an idea—Reformed worldview, liberation theology, Canons of Dordt, eschatology—without having to explain it each time.
However, if we want our churches and ministries to be a welcoming space for newcomers, Sunday services or weekly campus ministry gatherings are times where we need to constantly be alert to our presumption that we are preaching only to the choir. Being welcoming means regularly asking the question: If someone who has never read the Bible or been to church before walked through our doors, would they understand what I’m saying?
Small groups, Bible studies, seminars, Christian education, and other forms of intensive faith development are excellent places to delve into and unpack loaded terms. But Sunday morning can be both accessible for people who are exploring or new to faith as well as spiritually challenging for those of us more seasoned in the church.
The best way to check our Christian lingo is to have deep and real friendships with people who aren’t Christians. I was caught off guard once while talking to a close friend when she laughed when I referred to “non-Christians.” It had never occurred to me to consider how that term might sound to someone who is not part of my religious community.
Having been raised attending church and a Christian school, sometimes I feel as if I’m learning a new language when I try to communicate about faith with people who don’t share the same upbringing. Here are some tendencies in my ministry that I’m trying to unlearn:
- Asking questions that people can only answer if they know the Bible
I once heard a children’s ministry leader say, “When giving the children’s message during church, I never ask a question that only Christian kids can answer.” Because he wanted newcomers to feel as if they could participate too, he always began with a question any kid could answer (“How can you tell the wind is blowing?”). Then he would tie that into a biblical concept (“The Holy Spirit is like the wind.”). Contrast this approach to the time a minister began a children’s message with this question: “Now, who can tell me the language of origin of the word ‘hallelujah?’”
Phrases like “We all know the story of Moses and the burning bush” or “Most of us grew up singing ‘The B-I-B-L-E’” communicate to unchurched people that they are not part of the “we” that make up this gathering. The unintended message can be “You don’t belong yet.”
- Assuming people know the different books of the Bible
When a visiting pastor at our campus ministry opened her Bible to read from the gospel of Luke, she began by saying, “We’re going to read from the second part of the Bible, which is called the New Testament. This is the part that starts with Jesus’ birth.” She then took a few sentences to explain how Luke tells us the story of Jesus’ life. I was so grateful she did, as we had a first-time visitor that week who had little biblical knowledge.
I’ve learned that one can give an effective introduction to a book of the Bible in two or three sentences. Identify whether the text is from the New or Old Testament, who the author is, and who their intended audience is.
- Assuming people know what liturgical practices mean
I love when churches explain the meaning of confession, benediction, call and response, and the passing of the peace. Focusing on one element of the service each week and contextualizing why we do it can provide important education for new believers and encouragement for those of us who might be tempted to just go through the motions.
- Failing to explain connotations of words
As a child, I was flabbergasted to hear a pastor asking his congregation, “I’m not religious, am I? I really hope you don’t think I’m religious.”
“How can a minister say he’s not religious?” I asked my mom as soon as we left church. “Doesn’t he believe in God?”
“He means ‘legalistic,’” my mom responded. A devout kid, I understood “religious” to mean someone who believed in a religion, but in this particular church we had visited, the word carried completely different connotations.
Phrases like “dying to self,” “ways of the flesh,” “washed in the blood,” and other theological expressions can be very surprising and confusing to people who are not familiar with their meaning when we throw them around out of context.
Our messages don’t need to be watered down or simplified. Jesus spoke all the time in ways that confused his listeners, like using strange metaphors, hyperbole, or poetic language. But he also spoke in imagery that was accessible for his audience, in word pictures they would recognize and relate to: a farmer sowing seeds, a father embracing his runaway son, a vine growing fruit from its branches. The early church turned its attention to the Gentiles and expressing the redemption of Jesus in ways they could understand. Sometimes it’s tiring to keep re-evaluating our language. But if we claim to be missional, it is essential that our words and actions communicate that, regardless of how little you know about God, you are loved by God and welcome in God’s family.
- Describe an experience where you were a visitor or a newcomer to a meeting or organization and you didn’t fully understand all the terminologies or inside jokes. How did you feel? What might have been done differently to make your experience better?
- Besides those listed in the article, what are some other “Christian lingo” terms you can think of?
- What are some of the hardest questions you got asked about the Christian faith from non-Christians?
- In addition to the four tendencies listed by the author to avoid insider language, what other habits would you add that the church should try to “unlearn” in order to be more welcoming to visitors or newcomers?