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Contextualizing Our Language And Why It Matters

When I was in Bible School, I took an Intro. to Missions class. Granted, this was in 1983 and times have changed. But I believe many, if not most, of the principles I learned still apply. In the class, we talked about contextualizing the gospel (putting the good news of Jesus into the context of the people) and the cultural and geographic barriers that hindered this process. We discussed how ministry can be done in one’s own culture, a different culture, or a radically different culture. We hoped to find ways to make the gospel crystal clear, despite these various cultural differences.

Today, the same principles apply. While your church may not be in a different culture than those who attend, the language we sometimes use can cause newcomers to feel like they are radically different from you. This heightens their discomfort and increases the chances that they will leave your church confused, if not frustrated.

It bothers me when people use language I don’t understand. It makes me uncomfortable. Frankly, I find those people a bit obsequious and rather obtuse.

The Apostle Paul wrote about this when he addressed his readers after the Council in Jerusalem in 49 A.D. See Acts chapter 15. The question was, do people first have to become Jewish to become Christian. After much debate, James (the leader of the church in Jerusalem) spoke up and concluded that we “should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.”

Sometimes our churches make it “difficult” for people to experience God because we make it confusing. Especially in the language we use. We often use so many theological and churchy words and phrases it makes those who did not grow up in the church feel like, well, foreigners.

As church leaders who don’t want to make it “difficult” for the people, and for those who are willing to change their language to make it more understandable to the unchurched, here are a few things we need to change.

Theological Terms
We need to remember, most people who attend your church have had no theological training. So why do we speak a language they don’t understand? Theology is the study of God, but most non-Christians have not studied God and don’t know the language. Following are examples of theological terms to replace, or at minimum, explain in simple terms.

Replace apocalypse with end times. Substitute Disciples with Jesus followers. Clarify that the Apostles were Jesus’ earliest church leaders. Explain that the Messiah means Jesus (literally, “anointed one”.)

Change orthodox to things considered correct. Clarify justification means being made right with God through faith. Explain that redemption means sinful humans are “bought back” from the bondage of sin into a renewed relationship with God, by grace.

Eliminate ecclesiology and replace it with the study of the church (literally, “called out ones”). Switch eschatology with the study of the last things or End Times. Change pneumatology with the study of the Holy Spirit.

Church Phrases
Let’s not forget, depending on where you live, the majority of people in Western society did not grow up in church. They don’t know the lingo. So, eliminate blasphemy and replace it with contempt for God. Don’t use Canon of Scripture but instead try the authoritative books of the Bible. Switch doctrine with what is taught and believed about God.

Explain that conversion means changing one’s heart or turning one’s life over to God. That ministry means service to God. That covenant means a solemn promise.

Words associated with the church building can be especially confusing. Explain that a bulletin is a program. The narthex is a gathering area. A vestibule is a small room or hallway. The sanctuary is the Worship Center or Auditorium. Replace those words and call them what they are.

A Final Thought
Some might say that eliminating these terms waters down their meaning. I see their point. However, if someone doesn’t understand a word we use, they will never grasp the deep meaning behind it. As church leaders, it’s our job to “not make it difficult” for people to come to Christ. To explain what confusing phrases mean and to contextualize our words into a language the people of today’s culture will easily understand.