As someone whose life is focused on communications, the first chapter of John’s gospel fascinates me, draws me in over and over again, and causes me to ask new questions.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it…The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth…”
The reason I love this passage so much has to do with the use of “Word”, or in Greek “Logos”, to describe God himself. Jesus Christ is not described here as the Son, or the One, or the Way; although all of those are also true. Here, God in flesh is called the Word. Incarnation is the word, the language, and the declarative act of God in the world to help explain, in literal words and human flesh, what God is like and how he is making a way back to himself possible for all of humanity.
Now we the Church, who are the body of Christ, must embody this incarnate Word so that others may see His glory, grace, and truth. It’s not enough to just dwell amongst our neighbours. We need to use words to explain God to our neighbours. So how do we do that? We all have a sense that the words we use matter in terms of our effective witness to the world. In what ways might our words need to change so that we can translate God into a language that people in our context can understand?
This could certainly be a much larger discussion than we have time for in one short article, but let’s consider a few ways in which the language we use either invites outsiders into a Gospel community, or makes them feel excluded or unwanted.
Translate your ‘Insider Language’
Every group, business, family, or church has some degree of “insider language”. These are the words, acronyms, and ideas that are obvious to those who are part of the group, but are indecipherable to those outside. There is nothing wrong with having insider
Language. The problem arises when it isn’t identified and translated for the sake of people who are new to the group and therefore don’t understand its meaning.
Insider language can include words like “Eucharist”- what is that? Or “redemption”, “sin”, “salvation”, “Lord”, or even more basic words like prayer, worship, and Christ.
In almost every church gathering, there will be people who appreciate us explaining the meaning of the words we use.
But this idea of insider language and need for translation can also extend to all kinds of situations faced by newcomers to a church’s social community. Where is the Fellowship Hall? What exactly is a pastor/priest/vicar anyway? What exactly is Sunday School and who is it for? Does it cost anything?
Some people may not be new to Christianity itself, but are new to your own church community, having come from another one, and they do not know the names of people, programs, or other insider events. They will need help and translation to feel welcome.
For example, when you say “Join us for coffee in the Fellowship Hall after the service”, it is thoughtful to also add, “This room can be found down the stairs to your left, where we’ll have free coffee and a time to get to know one another for about 30 minutes after the service”.
Draw up a ‘Hot or Not’ communication list.
As part of my church’s communication strategy, every time we communicate we intentionally consider the guests and newcomers amongst us. We have created a list for our staff called the “Hot or Not” list. This is a list of words we prefer not to use, and their preferred counterparts, that will help guests who don’t have any Christian background to feel more welcomed in our community.
For example, in public settings we prefer “Connection with God” over “Intimacy with God”. We choose to say “Community” instead of “Fellowship”, “Invite” instead of “Recruit”, and “Take a next Step” instead of “Go Deeper”. We choose to refer to “the auditorium” instead of “the sanctuary” when speaking publicly about the space we use for worship.
Of course each church will need to decide which terms are the preferred ones to use,
as well as which terms need to be updated or at least explained. It can be an interesting and fun exercise for a group of ministry leaders of different ages and backgrounds to discuss which words would be on your own Hot or Not list.
Audit, through the eyes of a newcomer, your print and web presence.
For most newcomers and unchurched people, your church website will offer their first interaction with your church and result in the first impression. For this reason it’s valuable to examine, with the eyes of a newcomer, the pages of your website, as well as printed materials like bulletins, special event information, and even the signs outside your building. Start to take note of what type of words you are using. Digital (website and social media) content can usually be changed quite quickly, but other printed materials may take more time and money to update. Nevertheless, a plan can be created for a reasonable timeline in which to make changes to those practical print materials.
Imagine you were totally new to Christianity, perhaps arriving from another culture and having no knowledge of anything of our way of life or faith practices. How does our website feel to such newcomers? What questions might they ask? Can they find the answer to their questions, offered in simple language? Is your outdoor signage clear about: where one can enter the building; your services times; and basic contact information? Does the printed bulletin use insider language to refer to people or events? How might you reword things keeping the newcomer in mind?
Plan and practice new habits of communication.
As you can see, all of this focus on the language we use may require new habits to form in how we speak and write about our community of faith. Habits always take practice if they’re really going to take hold. A wonderful and simple question to ask ourselves when planning a service or preparing a communication piece can be, “How have I included the seeker, outsider, or new Christian in my communication?”.
It takes practice and planning ahead to slowly transform the words we use into language that many in the culture of 2018 can understand. Is it worth it? Absolutely! After all, God came in the same way for us, translating the ways of his Kingdom into a culture, language, and life that we humans could understand for ourselves.
Thanks be to God for his incarnational Word that became flesh.
Photo by Peter Feghali on Unsplash