Question 1: Why do we insist on not using some words and always using others?  When words like “Christian” or “Missionary” or “Evangelism” have been used for centuries, why would you discard those and try to “make up” some new ones when it only confuses people?

There are so many times when I think it’d be easier if I simply said to you – and the rest of the world – “Yes I’m a Christian.  Church Planting Missionary among Muslims. Making them into Christians and getting them into Churches that meet at 10 am on Sundays.”  That would be so much easier!

So….why don’t I do that? Do I not believe those things anymore?  (Interestingly I’ve recently read some of my earliest email updates from our Lebanon years, 1992-1997. They read like the above sentence).

Here’s what I’ve learned about language and the power of vocabulary over the years.

  1. It’s not what I say that matters as much as what you hear.  This does not mean I want to “tickle your ears with what you want to hear.” It means that I need to speak in a way that you can actually understand my point.  Words like Christian, missionary or evangelism are latent with meanings we cannot control and have a history of hundreds of years behind them that we cannot change.  So part of my reasoning is simply semantics. We need to make sense to our audience.
  2. Words are not simply cognitive, they are emotional.  If someone feels that I’m “evangelizing” them – in word or deed – there will be an emotional response. We have to be in touch with the feelings of the recipient in order for us to communicate effectively.
  3. Words create.  They hold the power of life and death.  They are not simply cognitive and emotional, they are creative.  When I say something, an image comes into your mind.  If I say “Would you like to come with us to church this Sunday” a certain image comes into the mind of the hearer. I have created a picture for him to consider. He thinks “Church?  Hmmmm? Well, the last time I was in a church was when I was 12 with my Catholic grandmother. I remember smelling a lot of something and not understanding a word. I hated it. Boring.  So…no I think I’ll pass.”   But what if I said, “Hey John, imagine with me for a moment. Wouldn’t this be fun. You know, a place where a bunch of our friends hung out for an hour and a half. Learned some cool stuff together about life and how relationships work. Had some good coffee and donuts and then did like a Karaoke sing-along with a band.  I know it’s weird, but we call that place “church” and we do hang out on Sundays, but I think you’ll be pretty darn surprised by what you see and feel there.  Whatdoyathink?”

Believe me, there are no magic formulas to communication. I can say to “I’m a follower of Jesus” and they will say “Oh, a Christian.”  I can say “It’s a cool place to hang out” and they will say “Church.”  So….why, again, do I do this?

I believe that taking a one word noun like “Christian” or “Church” and forcing yourself to explain what it is in a short paragraph is good for you and the hearer.  It makes you a disciplined communicator. It forces you to think more clearly about what you’re saying or what you’re inviting someone into.  Think about replacing words which have become nouns of a sort, like missions, evangelism or church planting, with longer descriptions that don’t let you off the hook so easily as using a single word does.

Finally, I think changing our vocabulary every few hundred years isn’t a bad thing anyway.  We’re not changing theology or the meaning behind the words, but we’re simply thinking of new ways to express what we mean and in ways that our new audiences can hear.  It has less integrity to say “I’m a Christian” if what the listener hears when you say this is – “I’m a right-wing fundamentalist who doesn’t like Gays and am Anti-choice and anti-women and anti-progress, because I’m stuck living in my own private reality of 1950’s Leave it to Beaver Kansas.”

Not that you mean to say those things (or maybe you do, but surely that wouldn’t be your point of using the word “Christian), but that’s surely what some will hear. So could you say it lacks integrity to call yourself something that for sure doesn’t communicate what you meant to say?  Maybe.

You will still need to explain if you use a phrase like “I’m trying to follow Jesus.”  It’s still not clear. But sometimes confusing the person gets them to ask “what do you mean by that.” Whereas if they think they understand (but don’t) they will not ask you to clarify.

I want to use words and phrases that get people to ask something. To keep the conversation alive.  Go to the next step.  And then, hopefully, they will see how wonderful our friend and savior, Jesus, really is.  He’s awesome!