Churchspeak

Even when Christians claim to believe the same gospel, their congregations may embody that belief in very different ways. The core practices of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, for example, may be celebrated differently (infant or believer’s baptism? Wine or grape juice? A common cup, or tiny individual portions?). The music may sound different (pipe organ or electric guitar? Hymns or praise choruses?). People may behave differently during a worship service (hands up, down, or even rigidly clamped at your side?).

Visitors looking for a home church may find these differences either refreshing or off-putting. Even the language may be different. People who have spent time in the same tradition often don’t recognize how much they take their common vocabulary for granted. Visitors are quickly reminded, albeit implicitly and unintentionally, that they are outsiders: Um, excuse me…what’s a “narthex,” and where can I find it?

This applies to the pious phrases we may use with each other, phrases we might never say anywhere else. We may feel obligated, for example, to say “Praise God!” whenever someone shares some good news, less because we are actually filled with praise, but because that’s the expected response.

This is all perfectly understandable. Church traditions and even specific congregations function like subcultures. That’s simply what happens when groups of people continue to spend meaningful time in each other’s presence. That shared culture, furthermore, is both displayed and reinforced through language. If you want to be a member of the group, you learn quickly what you can and cannot say, indeed, what you’re supposed to say and under what circumstances.

But some uses of churchspeak are more problematic. For example, if the leadership of a church decides to fire someone on staff, how do they go about it? What do they say? Let’s face it: many people in such leadership positions have never been trained in the ways of organizations. They’re not comfortable handling personnel issues, and the policies may be unclear. Job descriptions, too, may be fuzzy, and the boundaries and expectations constantly shifting. Performance evaluations may be highly subjective and swayed by the loudest or angriest voices.

Thus, imagine a youth minister being called into the lead pastor’s office for a meeting with the board. It’s been two years, and the youth ministry hasn’t succeeded in the way the senior leadership had hoped. They want to move on, and hire another youth pastor — but they’re not feeling 100% certain about their grounds for dismissal.

What do they say?

It may go something like this: “We’ve earnestly sought the Lord on this, and believe that God is calling you to continue your ministry elsewhere.”

That kind of churchspeak, frankly, gives me hives.

Of course, maybe they have prayed about it. But even if they have, was the conclusion already foregone, as if God would have to strike someone with lightning to change their course?

The problem here is that pious language is too easily co-opted for impious purposes. True, “You’re fired!” is hardly the desired alternative. But notice how that bit of churchspeak puts the onus on God, as if the youth pastor would have to go against divine fiat to challenge the decision. The language sounds spiritual, but can cover a multitude of sins.

This isn’t just about failures of leadership or misuses of power. Have you ever listened to someone’s tale of woe and then parted with the words, “I’ll be praying for you”? If so, then here’s the question: did you actually follow through and pray? Or did you say it because it was what you were supposed to say, even if you knew in your heart that you would probably forget or just not do it?

I sheepishly admit that I have done this, more than once. I have had to make the conscious decision not to say it unless I know I mean it. Even better, I may offer to pray for that person right then and there — and so far, no one’s turned me down yet.

To some extent, in our church communities, it should be expected that some of the things we say to each other may sound like a strange code to people visiting from the outside. If our intent is to truly communicate and to welcome visitors with open arms, we need to be aware of this.

But the more important point is this: don’t use religious language dishonestly. Take responsibility for what you say, listen to what others say in return, and let yourself be affected by what you hear. As both Jesus and James would say, let your “yes” mean “yes,” and your “no” mean “no.”

Be a person whose word is trustworthy.

And don’t use churchspeak to throw God under the bus.

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