Last fall, as part of an ongoing series on the book of James, I posted about what I like to call “churchspeak” — the pious sounding but often misleading language that we use in one another’s company as Christians. When people come together and stay together, they often develop something like their own regional dialect: words and expressions that make sense to them but may sound like a strange code to outsiders. And indeed, that’s one of the reasons people use such coded language; it marks who’s an insider and who’s an outsider.
And sometimes that means if you want to belong, you’d better learn the code.
The idea isn’t unique to me. But I’ve used the concept several times with different audiences, and people seem to resonate with it. Thus, I’ve decided to start another occasional series, exploring different examples and how they can complicate our life together as a church. These posts will be drawn from my own experience and stories I’ve heard from others.
In the earlier post on churchspeak, I mentioned that we sometimes promise to pray for people who are going through tough times — and then don’t do it. We say it to encourage them and there’s nothing wrong with that. But we also say it because we somehow know that it’s the “right” and expected thing to say; we would feel that we were falling short in the piety department if we didn’t say it.
The problem isn’t in the words themselves. Again, it is right and good to pray for others; it can be a source of comfort to them to let them know that we’re doing so. But if we don’t follow through, the promise lacks integrity.
I’m not talking about merely forgetting to pray. We all do that. We get distracted; our minds are full of other things. There are days I’d forget my head if it weren’t attached. What I’m talking about is promising to pray when, if we were being completely honest with ourselves, we don’t really have a firm intention to do it. We say it less out of genuine compassion and care, and more out of a vague sense of obligation.
Does that sound familiar? Then here’s another, closely related example.
Somebody asks you to do something — not just a personal favor, but something that is supposedly for the good of the ministry. Serve on a committee. Volunteer in a particular area. Take the reins of a project or team. Truth be told, you don’t really want to do it. But you’re not sure if your reasons, if you even know what they are, will hold up. And let’s face it, it’s hard to say no at church without feeling like we are somehow disappointing God. That’s doubly so if the person who’s asking us to serve uses churchspeak like, “I’ve been seeking the Lord’s wisdom on this, and God is telling me that you’d be perfect for the job.”
What are you supposed to say, “No, God didn’t tell you that”? Or maybe, “I don’t care what God says, I’m saying no”?
So instead, you pause. While the internal tug-of-war rages, you somehow manage to put on your most thoughtful facial expression. Then you say, “Let me pray about it, and I’ll get back to you.”
It’s often an effective way of ending the conversation. And there’s nothing wrong with saying it if you really mean it, if you really are open to the idea and intend to pray earnestly about it.
But again, let’s be honest — and yes, I’ve done this myself — sometimes it’s a delay tactic. We really have no intention of saying yes. We might take a quick stab at praying about it, just to say we did, but aren’t really open to any redirection from God. The delay helps us get out of what feels like a pressure situation to gather our wits.
And it allows us to say no by email (again, with the appropriate spiritual language) instead of face-to-face.
It’s easier that way, right?
Again, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with saying, “I’ll pray for you” or “Let me pray about it” — if indeed we truly intend to pray. But it becomes misleading churchspeak if we use that language to don a cloak of spirituality that doesn’t match our true intentions.
And yes: it can be a response to a sense of being unfairly pressured or manipulated by someone in authority. But the question is, what kind of community do we create when we fight churchspeak with more churchspeak? When does it finally become time to be more honest with each other about what we’re thinking, and to make room for what people really want to say?
If that’s what we aspire to, perhaps recognizing and admitting the coded language we already use is a place to start.