I once wanted to use the African proverb “It takes a village to raise a child” in something I was writing. While this proverb has been around for generations, an editor told me I should remove it from my piece. The proverb had become too associated with Hillary Clinton because of her book It Takes a Village, the editor said, and would therefore immediately turn off half of my readers.
This editor wasn’t wrong. Experts suggest that loaded language, such as a phrase associated with a specific political personality, can make us react to emotional stimuli instead of taking the time to fully read and understand what has been said.
With that in mind, I’d like to suggest a few loaded terms that we should all be thoughtful about in 2021. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use them, but I hope we can use them cautiously and redeem them for God’s purposes.
In many countries the term “missionary” connotes colonialism and overreach. In the past, some missionaries arrived from Western countries, dismissed local culture, pushed their own ideas and understandings, and cared only for people’s souls—not their health and well-being.
As a result, when CRCNA staff members today talk with people about the prospect of doing gospel outreach, discipleship, church planting, and theological training around the world, it’s common for the candidate to say something like, “I’m really interested in this type of ministry, but I don’t want to be a missionary.”
The Christian Reformed Church is not exempt from historical mistakes by missionaries. But it’s important to realize that today Resonate Global Mission, ReFrame Ministries*, and World Renew partner with Christians throughout the world to spread the gospel in a way that honors unique local contexts. CRCNA staff are from everywhere and go everywhere. This has changed what “mission” looks like.
“Over the years, my concept of what it means to be a missionary has changed,” said Ken Lee, a Resonate missionary serving in Japan.
Years ago, when Ken’s pastor suggested Ken serve in Japan, Lee wondered, “Why Japan? Japan is such a wealthy country.”
But when Lee visited Japan, he discovered a dire need for the gospel. In a country of 127 million people, less than one percent of the population is Christian. Few of those Christians are young people, and churches are rapidly aging. Without support from Christians in other countries, the church in Japan could die.
“If we just leave them to do it on their own, it’s almost impossible,” Lee said.
Partnering with local churches, Lee disciples and teaches young people to actively follow Christ in their communities. In many cases, Lee also gets to introduce people to Christ for the first time, but that process often takes months or years.
One time, for example, Lee tutored a university student in English for a year, getting to know her before he shared the gospel with her.
“She accepted Christ and wanted to be baptized,” Lee said. He connected her to a church and encouraged her to pray for her family. Four years later, her parents accepted Christ too.
“Around 2010, when Glenn Beck had a Fox News show, he went on the offensive against the term ‘social justice,’” said Kris VanEngen, justice mobilizing coordinator for World Renew. Beck’s influence turned many viewers into critics of the concept.
Throughout the Old and New Testaments, the Bible is clear that Christ-followers are called to “do justice.” Unfortunately, because justice issues often intersect with politics, especially in their most urgent moments, it can be difficult for Christians today to recognize where justice fits in their Christian walk.
“What I think we have to come back to is that there is an idea of social justice that is largely determined by our society, and then there is biblical justice, which is determined by Scripture,” said Eliza Cortez-Bast, coordinator for local missional engagement for the Reformed Church in America.
Our call to biblical justice is clear. But we also have a responsibility to discern how God is specifically calling us to pursue this justice.
“It may be times of dedicated prayer—for issues, for our political leaders, for our communities or countries. It may be lament—joining with our communities as we mourn with those who mourn. It may be a letter-writing campaign. It may be service,” said Cortez-Bast.
In other words, we shouldn’t let the political connotations of “justice” prevent us from taking action.
Ida Kaastra-Mutoigo, director of World Renew-Canada, agrees and adds that this should not be just an individual activity. In fact, she said, systems of injustice often contribute to the poverty that World Renew sees around the world. These systems need a larger group of people and policy changes to address them if we want to help individuals overcome poverty.
“It’s powerful when churches embrace ‘justice’ in the spirit of ‘biblical justice’ and think creatively about what that means for each of us in our local and global contexts,” Kaastra-Mutoigo said. “Historically, when the church has engaged these issues and worked for solutions, we’ve had a big impact.”
Evangelism has a bad reputation. Many people think of colonialism, televangelists shouting about burning in hell, and Christians standing on street corners with signs that say, “PREPARE TO MEET THY GOD!”
But every day, CRCNA staff and ministry leaders are working to paint a different portrait of evangelism as they share the gospel in loving ways.
When it comes to evangelism, motive and method make a big difference, said Resonate missionary Linda**. Linda serves in West Africa among a people group from a Muslim background in which Islamic customs and traditions are deeply embedded in culture. Many are resistant to the gospel.
But Linda wants to see members of this people group know Jesus as Lord and Savior. She has lived among them for almost 30 years and has formed deep friendships.
“I like the term ‘embodying the gospel,’” Linda said—“living it out, being the hands and feet of Jesus, being the only Bible that some will ever read. … With this kind of ministry, it is often a thousand tiny things rather than one big thing that inches people along the road to Jesus.”
After years of her living alongside them—laughing, crying, working, playing, and praying—people are starting to follow Christ.
Amadou** is one young man who accepted Christ after befriending Linda. He was intrigued by Linda’s character and once remarked how “good” she was. “That was an open door for a long discussion about the only one who can truly be called ‘good,’ and that if there is any goodness in me it is because of him who lives within me,” said Linda.
After nearly a decade, Amadou decided to follow Christ. His changed behavior is attracting other people to Christ, too.
“His integrity, his honesty, his servant heart, his humility, and eventually his passion for the Lord drew and continues to draw others into the kingdom,” Linda said.
That is evangelism at its best.
“I refrain from using the term ‘reconciliation’ because of my recent conversations with white communities after the George Floyd event and the protests afterward,” said Reggie Smith, director of diversity for the CRCNA. “As I was asked to engage with members and churches about this issue, the statement I kept hearing was ‘we just need to be reconciled to each other.’”
Smith explained that such uses of the term assume that there was a previous time of conciliation that we all need to get back to. But from slavery to Jim Crow, redlining to eugenics, and so much more, the history of racial relationships has long been fraught with pain and trauma.
“Most white people begin with the notion that everything was cool in some previous time,” Smith added, “when in actuality, there was never conciliation in the first place. My white brothers and sisters quickly use ‘reconciliation’ as an easy and less painful trope to avoid the toughest fact that racial relationships did not start on any good footing.”
The complexity of the term “reconciliation” isn’t limited to race relations in the United States.
“While in Canada the term ‘reconciliation’ is generally seen as positive and acceptable, especially as it relates to relationships between colonizers and Indigenous people, the term also points to the need for deeper and harder work,” said Shannon Perez, justice and reconciliation mobilizer for the CRCNA’s Canadian Ministries.
“In my work with the Canadian Indigenous Ministry Committee, I try to help people in Christian Reformed churches understand that for us to build relationships between colonizers and Indigenous people we need to not just teach history or find ways to justify what was done in the past; it is about listening, and then it is about making changes,” she said.
The bottom line is that we have to start from scratch, own the history of racial injustice, listen to each other’s experiences, and build a sustained process toward something better than the status quo.
Some Final Thoughts
Word choice matters. The descriptions and phrases we use solicit specific responses in our readers. That’s what separates decent speech and writing from excellent speech and writing.
When words get loaded with meaning in unintended ways, however, they can elicit an emotional response far beyond the word’s literal meaning. As Christians, let’s be thoughtful and careful about the words we use, ensuring that we are not losing sight of our gospel calling as we interact with each other. Put another way, let’s not allow our words to be a barrier to kingdom work.
*ReFrame Ministries is the new name of Back to God Ministries International as of January 2021.
**Names have been changed for security.