In just my relatively short time serving God’s people, I’ve grown weary of some of the language and categories that often times get used merely out of habit (or it’s just the inherited way people have always talked about things). Many times it is because of the burden that this language can produce, as opposed to what Jesus intends with an easy yoke or teaching (Matthew 11).
In my own life, I’ve spent countless hours learning to use correct language in order to help others do the same.
Because words matter.
You see, my undergraduate degree is in the study of communication, or rhetoric. And one major thing I learned, and now have seen time and time again, is how much we are shaped by the language and categories we use to describe our experiences. The way we talk necessarily “boxes us in.” Sometimes in good ways, sometimes bad. How you talk about things becomes how you think about them and experience them. And it becomes problematic when it then “boxes” God in – in ways that aren’t actually possible and yet happens because of how we talk.
In recent generations, many in the American Church have normalized modern “business language” and “leadership principles” as their baseline for discussing the organization of the church. This has also led many to use this same sort of language in order to understand their relationship with God as well. Overall, I must say, my assessment is it has de-personalized God – which is terrifying honestly.
Most times the language and categories being used are incomplete and unhelpful. They are modern attempts to describe things that have already been described in Scripture in ways that are far more complete and helpful.
Sometimes when I attempt to critique the use of modern language and suggest better ways to talk about things, I’m met by people who feel like I’m “nitpicking.” But since taking thoughts captive (2 Corinthians 10) is what we are encouraged to do, it is an important work to look at how we think and talk about our relationship with God (or the church).
And so that leads to the need to discuss an important question: Why does it matter?
Words matter (especially when talking about our relationship with God and the church) because they shape not only our own outlook on faith, but also how we directly relate to God and to others!
When someone tries to explain their own experience of God to another person, it is always an interesting process for them to try and translate that experience in a way the other person will understand. So then, translating those experiences across groups of people, cultures, generations, etc. gets even more interesting. And since words are powerful enough to shape people’s understanding of a relationship with God – it means we must take the words we use seriously.
James talks about this very thing in his letter in the Scriptures actually (though you may have never applied it this way):
“When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.”James 3:3-5
Our words are very powerful. And so how we talk about God must be done carefully, and with great reflection. Even more so if you are someone others listen to! Because how you talk about faith will influence how others talk about it. Which also means we must be willing to try our best to give complete pictures of a relationship with God right out of the gate. And we also must be willing to evaluate how well we actually did – and correct that language if necessary.
I never fault people for attempting to use language they see as culturally relevant in order to explain faith, the church, etc. I’m constantly doing the same thing.
But what I do fault us for is when we perpetuate the use of language without looking at whether it has been helpful or not.
Much of the modern business language being used in church settings has bugged me for a long time. But over the last several years I’ve become more outspoken about it because of how much I’ve seen it hurt my own relationship with God, others’ relationships with God, and overall the expressions of God’s people – or the church.
Thus, this blog series will address specific language that I have found particularly troublesome and problematic. Phrases, metaphors, and categories that have been mostly harmful and not helpful in attempting to give people the words they need to navigate faith, their relationship with God, and the church.
Whether it’s categories like burn out or deconstruction, or language like “leaving the ministry” or “excellence culture,” I will look to the experience someone is attempting to describe and compare it with how the Scriptures (and at times mothers and fathers of the faith who have gone before us) have described it. And hopefully you will find that I am trying to offer a way of thinking about this relationship with God we are all navigating using the language God uses in the Bible to describe such things.
So with a great deal of humility, here we go…