The Confusion of Church Dialect

A few years ago church leaders were challenged to learn the new language of pop culture and permit many old and worn church terms to fade into obscurity. You know, the church of what’s happening now wasn’t your grandmother’s church. So, we marked terms like “invitation”, “come down front”, “ask Jesus into your heart”, “amen”, “turn in your Bibles”, and other church specific idioms, what was called “Christianese”, and some of our more obvious platitudes from our vocabularies. It was a seeker sensitive move to eliminate the insider language that people on the outside didn’t know. Cool!

So, let me tell you about my neighbors, again. They are twenty something college grad newly weds trying to find a fit in a local church. They’re not church people, bought a condo as their first home, and are planning a family. They believe a spiritual life is important in raising children. So, they’ve visited every church brand visible in our large suburban sprawl. They’ve been in cathedrals, house churches, chapels, school houses, store fronts, and have experienced liturgical worship, free church, rock and roll, joyous praise, meditation, prayer, line-by-line teaching, expository preaching, story telling, stand-up routines, relational sharing, and Scripture reading.

And, they mentioned the confusion of church dialect. In one recent church visit they heard terms like epic, leverage, missional, authentic, engagement, empowerment, connection, linkage, mobilization, exponential, inclusive, indigenous, and a whole new thesaurus of church language. In one visit they listened to a forty-five minute talk and never heard the word “Jesus”. For them it was the glossolalia of newness that left them perplexed.

Here’s a news flash. Replacing our old church code words with new ones wasn’t what was intended when we were challenged to convey truth and church life in ways seekers could understand. Maybe it’s time for a refresher course in the language arts for the church. Several things come to mind—

  1. Spiritual truth must be spoken. We are charged to preach the word in season and out (2 Timothy 4:2).
  2. Jesus spoke in a simple, homespun way that registered with the common people of his day (Mark 4:33-34).
  3. Our words must demonstrate the Spirit’s power and not our own clever contrivance (1 Corinthians 2:4).
  4. We must not assume that church outsiders will understand our church-speak, whether new or old (2 Timothy 1:13).
  5. We must not de-mystify the Gospel (Ephesians 6:19-20).

Jesus taught an important lesson on giving oaths. He concluded this teaching with a memorable phrase, “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil” (Matthew 5:37). His use of the word translated “simply” is an important thought beyond the giving of oaths. Evidently he wanted his followers to speak in a simple manner devoid of flowery talk and boastful oaths. It is an important lesson.

Our passion to reach those beyond the doors of the church with the Good news must not obscure the simple truth of the Gospel in our hip language. Being on the edge or clever just isn’t the point. Our words must be a bridge that the Spirit uses to bring people close to him, and not lost in the confusion of church dialect.

And all of God’s people said …

By Sonny Holmes

Dr. Sonny Holmes is a retired Southern Baptist pastor. He is a blogger, ministry coach, and author of Finish. Period. Going the Distance in Ministry. Sonny was President of the South Carolina Baptist Convention in 2011. He and Harriet have been married for 43 years and are the parents of Liz Carpenter, husband Scott, and grandparents of John Lewis and Laura.


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