“It’s Just Semantics”//a rant about church and the words we use.

Two years ago, I joined staff at a church that is largely run by administrators and technical people, pragmatists who often operate largely on logic and “what works.”  The actual church congregation consists of all kinds of people, but primarily young working class families with simple tastes.

As a result, I’ve noticed that there is a peculiar language and semantics that is distinct to this particular group/subculture of people, largely different than the language of the creative, artistic and intellectual church that I had been a part of until now.  The creative, intellectual church often used words like “dialogue”, “conversation”,  “story” and “community.”  They used phrases like “spirit-led”, “beautiful” and “moment.”

This is the language of philosophers and artists.

This is in stark contrast to the pragmatic church where I currently serve.  The pragmatic church tends to use words like “high impact”, “high capacity,” “big wins,” and “next steps.”  This is the language of businessmen, executives and administrators.

Personally, I find it harder to relate to the language when the semantics seem very corporate.  I do consider myself to be an artist with somewhat of a philosopher’s heart so I admit my own personal bias. However, beyond personal bias, I struggle with the pragmatic language because at the heart, I believe that church is not a business; it’s a family.  It’s the Bride for whom the King of all creation abandoned all the glory and majesty of heaven to save, redeem and restore.  In the end, church is not a business model, even if Andy Stanley manages to draw a few organizational principles from its structure.

I couldn’t help but notice that we would never talk about our own families and friends and relationships in this pragmatic, businesslike way.  We would never say “I had a high impact weekend with my family” or “Wow, I had a high capacity time with my friends when we went to the beach the other day.” So why should we apply this language to the church?

Some might say “it’s just semantics”; but I think there’s a reason God revealed Himself through words, namely the Word.

Words matter.

They hold incredible depth and meaning and–when contextualized–there’s enormous power in their truth.  When words are not contextualized and not completely understood by both the listener and the speaker of them, I do think there is somewhat of a breakdown in that power.  I do think the pragmatic words we use when talking about church are often insufficient and inadequate .

(For those unfamiliar with some of these terms, I’m breaking down my take on them for the uninitiated.  These are words that are often used by leaders to describe the goals, vision and activity of the church.  For those who are familiar with these terms, I’m merely sharing how these words strike me.  These are only my opinion.)

For example:  “high impact”

Unfortunately, no matter the good intentions, the term “high impact” often devolves into a euphemism for “higher numbers.”  However, it’s a bit passe and decidedly tacky for a church to actually broadcast the fact that they use numbers to measure success (nobody posts this number in the foyer anymore, we just quietly print it in the bulletin along with the offering).  So instead we call well-attended events “high impact.”  Or we call large auditoriums or sanctuaries “high impact venues.”  This is somewhat of an inadvertent way to be able to claim that we don’t measure spiritual success by statistics but effectively do it anyway.

“big win”

See “high impact” for preface and context.  If execution of technical and spiritual sides do well, then this usually equals a “big win”, i.e. if the worship band sounds good, if X amount of people are raising their hands, how loud people laugh at the pastor’s jokes, etc.  To be fair, this term is often also applied when some kind of life transformation has evidently happened (i.e., people publicly rededicating their lives, becoming baptized, etc. which of course is fantastic).  This term is also warranted when the offering is a bit higher than normal.  To summarize, external results usually = big win.  If there are no apparent external results, we normally don’t call it a “big win.”  We just call it a “good week.”

Something bothers me about the term “big win” although I’m not sure why.  I have no problem with the word “victory” or “celebration.”  I’m possibly biased and old school.  I’ll allow for that…

“next steps”

One-dimensional, dumbed down word for spiritual formation. Or sanctification.  Or both.  This suggests that the Christian way follows a simple, direct path.  The beauty and agony of the Christian life is that it is both simple and incredibly complex.  It’s crystal clear, yet also shrouded in mystery, a mere shadow of things to come.  I do think it’s crucial to have opportunities for ministry, deeper relationships, healing, encouragement and commitment to Christ to be made clear, but I think repeatedly calling all of these opportunities “next steps” seems somewhat inadequate and a gross generalization.

When we say “next steps,” what we are really asking is “do you need to be baptized?”, “are you plugged into a ministry?”, and “are you a church member and if not have you taken our church member class?”  After that, the only thing left is to be on-staff or leader of your own ministry.  After that, there are no next steps, except maybe to do better at your quiet time and probably be more patient when getting cut off in traffic.  The idea of a lifelong ethic of repentance and Christian maturity is far too daunting so let’s not scare people off with that quite yet.  It’s much easier to talk about events, programs and methods.  The term “next steps” assumes that there is a simple A, B, C, D progression of the Christian life.  And that’s simply not true.

Does anybody have similar thoughts or experiences on any of these words?

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4 thoughts on ““It’s Just Semantics”//a rant about church and the words we use.

  1. I hate corporate speak even in a corporation, and yes, big win offends me somehow. I don’t have a problem with “next step” though. I actually find it helpful when things get chaotic or confusing to remember that I only need at that moment to do what god wants me to do at that moment. And when talking to a group of non-christians or newish believers I think it can be a call to action as long as it’s made clear that your next step could be wrestling with the question “is god who he says he is”, or getting baptized, or getting in a bible study, seeking a mentor .OR…it could be getting out of debt, stop sleeping with your girlfriend and move out etc.. I think for those at the beginning of the journey there is so much that is new and foreign that it can be overwhelming and the idea of the next step makes it a bit more manageable. As long as it’s not laid out as “just follow these 10 steps and you will be spiritually mature and happy”

  2. Good point about the “next steps.” And I agree, the term “next steps” definitely does make things easier to understand if you’re unfamiliar with church or Christianity. It helps people understand that a simple response or call to action is required of us. I think I just get frustrated when it becomes nothing more than a tagline or a call to fill out a card and drop it in a box. Throughout Scripture we read people often asking “What should we do?” in heartfelt response to the gospel or to the way that God is moving. We absolutely need to help and engage with people when they’re asking that question and wanting to respond somehow. I just don’t think we need to create a brand, logo or tagline around the action.

  3. P.S. I think “big win” bothers me because I’ve only ever heard it when talking about sports or business. “How about that big win the other night?” “Or our stock rose five points this quarter. That’s a big win!” Or maybe people use it as a clever or cute tagline in their Facebook status updates. “Four Rivers barbecue for lunch on this Saturday. Win.”

    I can’t describe it other than it feels extremely odd to say “big win” so often when talking about the spiritual growth of a church.

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