Between church-hopping as a Millennial and working at a Christian school teaching students of Gen Z, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the language we use in church. I’ve encountered several words and phrases that have started to fall flat. To me, they might feel false or stale. To students, they feel exclusionary or induce shame or confusion. As we look forward to a new decade, I propose we stop using these words in church. These aren’t awful words, necessarily; there are certainly congregations using them authentically. But if we want church to resonate with the next generation, here are a few words to reconsider:
Let’s stop calling people “nones.” This term, originally used by sociologists for the group of people who answer “none” to the survey question “What religion do you affiliate with?” has crept into popular church lingo. How would you like to be known by what you’re not? These “nones” might be students so educated in science and psychology that they find faith a hard sell. They might be individuals who have been hurt by the church in the past and aren’t ready to return. Maybe “spiritual not religious” allows some to believe in God and live biblically without the baggage institutions can hold. We’re not inviting anyone back to church by labeling them “nones.”
Here’s the most common complaint I hear from students: “My church says they welcome everyone, but they don’t mean everyone.” I think what they’re identifying is the difference between welcome and inclusion. To welcome someone is simply to be hospitable and inviting. But to truly include someone, to affirm their identity in Christ, is to make sure they have a voice and a seat at both the proverbial and the sacramental table. If we say we’re welcoming but turn away an LGBT member from serving, or if we invite Spanish-speaking neighbors to church but don’t offer any materials in Spanish, are we truly inclusive? If some churches aren’t ready for these things, so be it—they can just set the word “welcoming” aside for now.
This word has ironically tainted the minds and spirits of many young people—women who took their first virginity pledge before they had their first period and men who were told that any sexual desire was evil. Does dropping “purity” mean we don’t teach everyone to respect their bodies and each other, to think carefully about their physical relationships, and to value partners who do the same? Of course not. But “purity” has too much hurtful history attached. In its place, try “holiness,” “respect,” or simply “love.”
Love offering, joy box
Why do we feel the need to euphemize “giving away money because we’ve been blessed”? “Offering” or “collection” work just fine, and it’s a great idea to remind the congregation what the money is used for.
Liturgy Without Explanation
Without explanation, liturgical words can be intimidating to someone visiting a church or new to church altogether. This is especially true for the communion liturgy. It’s beautiful and significant, but communion is also highly symbolic and is one of the weirdest things churches do. Communion needs explanation in plain language (not just the church-jargony liturgical words) every time. It should be clear who is welcome at the table, what it means to partake, and what to do if you’re not interested. The logistics of receiving the bread and the cup should also be spelled out. A stressful or awkward experience is not a worshipful one, so tell people what aisles to use if they’re coming up front. If you’re passing plates, let everyone know whether they should eat the bread right away or wait for the pastor’s cue. Do this every time, even if the regular congregation has heard it 500 times. Your visitors will thank you.
- Have you ever attended an event where people used jargon that you were not familiar with? How did you feel at the time?
- What are some other church jargon words that you think are confusing or not helpful to newcomers?
- On the other hand, are there biblical or “church” words or ideas that need more explanation and better, or even more frequent, use in your church?
- Besides changing some of our jargon, what else might a church do to better connect or engage with the younger generation?
Get All the Updates!
Don’t miss this week’s must-read articles:
- Reading As An Act of Peacemaking
- Loving Your Neighbor Through the COVID-19 Outbreak
- COVID-19: Get updates here