Watch your language!

Picture of words

freeimages.com Brenton Nicholls

Words matter.

I have a dream…”

We shall fight on the beaches…”

You may choose to look the other way, but you can never say again that you did not know.”

Martin Luther King Jr., Winston Churchill, and William Wilberforce changed the world with their words. That’s the power of words. Their words were transformative in shaping society for the better and strengthening its resolve to resist evil. But words can also work the other way, as speeches by the ‘bad apples’ of history, and careless words from politicians, corporate executives, and others clearly show. For good or ill, words make long-lasting impressions on people.

In fact, making a good first impression is so important that many of us have been trained to carefully craft an elevator speech. We use this speech to introduce ourselves, and each word is strategically selected to convey exactly what we want our audience to know and feel about us. That’s how important words are.

So what words are associated with evangelicals in the public’s mind? What impression have we made on the people we want to share the Good News with?

Given all the vigorous debates over the last forty years about divisive social issues, the general public has repeatedly heard words of warning, disapproval, and dissent from us. I’m sure they know what we stand against, but I wonder if they know what we stand for. The press and social media are very good at covering and commenting on the divisive issues, but not as eager to cover good news stories, so I don’t expect the public would know much about our positive agenda.

This one-sided spotlight on evangelicals needs some counter-balancing. It’s time for the public to hear words from us that are positive and inviting; words that intrigue them and inspire them to explore faith and find out more about Jesus Christ.

The power of a word

In Boundless: What Global Expressions of Faith Teach Us about Following Jesus, author Bryan Bishop quotes Rick Love,1 who uses what he calls blessing the nations terminology. These words originate in the calling of Abram and extend to the language of Paul. “Thus,” suggests Love, “our core message is blessing in Christ and our core mandate is blessing all nations.” Bishop asks, “Could it be that one thing that turns people off from biblical faith is the use of cliché words that no longer convey the message we intend? Could these automatic phrases also keep our own thinking stale?”2

Bishop raises an important point. We have a whole vocabulary of churchspeak that the public may not understand, or they may find it archaic or trite, or it may bring to mind a negative stereotype of evangelicals. We need to watch our language and make sure it is really working for us.

Words are important not just for the effect they have on our listeners, but also their effect on us. The words we use have the potential to change paradigms, to inspire or to bore, to create positive or negative impressions. For example, adopting Rick Love’s blessing the nations terminology has several positive effects, including that it:

  • shifts our focus from receiving blessings to giving blessings, making us more other-centred
  • is uplifting and fulfilling, and invites generous, expansive, creative thinking that can revitalize our ministries
  • changes my relationship with the people I’m blessing. They are not just people, they are God’s image-bearers who God wants to bless through me. It builds a benevolent attitude toward others
  • calls us into the world, minimizing the possibility of separation from it, so relevance and engagement will both be greater

The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada is one ministry that has enthusiastically picked up the language of blessing in its new mission statement: Uniting Evangelicals to bless Canada in the name of Jesus. I can see how the old statement, Together for Impact, Influence, and Identity, could be seen by secular people as threatening because it sounds political and it could make them wonder what exactly the EFC wants to impact and influence, and how that will affect them.

As a director of EFC, I felt a growing excitement as Bruce Clemenger unpacked what the new statement meant to him. The new language immediately had a deep sense of rightness about it, and it resonated well with me because it is a positive way forward. The idea of blessing a nation takes us back to the roots of Christianity and its impressive impact on the world around it. The words of the new mission statement made me prouder than ever to be associated with the EFC, and it breathed new life around the board table as we all sensed something new and significant had just been birthed.

That is the power of language!

Language to reconsider

If we want to build more understanding of what we stand for, we need first to watch how we use language that unnecessarily reinforces negative stereotypes of evangelicals. Some examples follow.

Language that threatens

Consider changing words that the public may find threatening to more positive words and ideas.

Campus Crusade for Christ Canada is a high-profile example of a ministry that eliminated warfare language by changing its name to Power to Change Ministries. ‘Crusade’ had a positive meaning in Christian circles as a major, concerted evangelism campaign (another military term!) such as those held by Billy Graham. However, the general public now only associates the term with specific historical military campaigns. The new name captures the idea of a positive change people can experience by encountering Christ personally, which would be highly appealing to people who yearn for something more.

In the case of warfare and conquest words/metaphors, better language would focus on the voluntary nature of responding to Christ. And be sure to make it clear that spiritual warfare is in the spiritual realm only.

Language that alienates

We need to watch out for us/them language. There are times when it is appropriate, but if the dominant relationship model used by your ministry rests on us/them, people outside the faith will not feel very welcome. So a good question to answer is, How will we refer to people who are not yet Christ-followers? I’m looking for a word that, if I were not yet a believer, I would not feel offended hearing it applied to me.

I look forward to reading your suggestions for such a word that is respectful, accurate, and easy to say/write. In this series, I generally call non-Christians secular because, in addition to my primary audience of my Christian peers, I am writing with people in mind who have no religious faith. I realize, though, that secular excludes people of other faiths.

If we want to refer to a specific group, we should learn what they want to be called, and use that.

Finally, we should watch for defensive or angry language because others will not respond well to it. Instead, we should use a tone that is positive, solution-oriented, and conciliatory. We should be engaging, not demanding.

Unhelpful protesters

Every so often we hear in the news about some protester or other who identifies as a Christian, and they’re doing or saying something that is not helping the cause, because they are playing into the public’s stereotype of us. The public sees them as representative of the whole of evangelicalism and blames us all for their words and behaviour.

We don’t have control over anyone, and the reality is that people who do that kind of protesting are going to do it regardless of what others think. But the local church  is in the best position to teach Christians what is helpful and not helpful to our cause when it comes to dissent and protest. For example, it could run a course on writing opinion letters for publication. Sermons could illustrate how the early church transformed an empire through acts of sacrificial love and personal testimony.

Download discussion guide

Download discussion guide

Tell our story for a positive future

Finally, we need to proactively inform the public what our preferred future looks like. As a community of evangelical ministries:

  • Could we develop a sector narrative, similar to what Imagine Canada has done for the charitable sector as a whole, that tells our story in a positive way? I was pleased to help get the Imagine Canada narrative started at a time when the public was particularly aggressive in challenging charities about compensation and overhead, and it dealt with those issues head on while also documenting the good work that the sector does.
  • Could we each describe what being a blessing to the world around us looks like in terms of our particular ministries? Could we deflate some of the apprehension about our objectives by describing what kind of society we want to build in terms of justice, relationship, and sharing the planet with each other?
  • What can we affirm about our society today, just as it is? Where we can, we need to add our support to efforts, particularly secular efforts, if they are leading towards God’s ideal for human society.

Let’s do whatever we can so that the public hears and understands the contribution we want to make.

John G. Stackhouse Jr has a terrific post related to this issue which I’ve linked to in Voices: Don’t annoy people you are trying to persuade.

Key Thought: The public must know what evangelicals are for.

“The book, Boundless, has been provided courtesy of Graf-Martin Communications, Inc. Available now at your favourite bookseller.”

  1. Rick Love, “Blessing the Nations in the 21st Century: A 3D Approach to Apostolic Ministry,” International Journal of Frontier MIssiology (Spring 2008), 34.
  2. Boundless, p 160.
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