Tweet used to be what birds did. Text is now a verb. Gay once suggested light-hearted. Cell had to do with prison. Awful indicated inspiring wonderment. Artificial described skillful art. Husband stood for home-ownership, and nice implied foolishness.
Selfie, unlike, fauxhawk, buzzworthy and babymoon are now actual words in the Oxford dictionary. (Text me a selfie of your fauxhawk on your babymoon. I’ll retweet it and hopefully it’ll be buzzworthy enough to go viral!)
Language can be pretty confusing. Words can change their meaning. Does bad mean good now? Does sick mean good now? And what am I supposed to call the professional football team that plays in the nation’s capitol?
Words can change their meaning or stop working. So I need to be careful with my speech.
The Apostle Paul put it this way: “Let your conversation be gracious and attractive so that you will have the right response for everyone.”—Colossians 4:6 (NLT)
Here are a few words that don’t seem to work in my context anymore:
I get it, in Biblical times elders were men who valued for their wisdom based on their age and experience. They were like the typical city council of our day. And the Bible used several words like “presbuteros” (presbyter) and “espiskopas” and “poimen” (often translated as pastor) that can be interpreted as “elder” to denote church leadership positions.
Maybe it is different in your setting, but too often where I live if someone becomes an “elder” they turn into Ron Burgundy, Will Ferrell’s character in the Anchorman movies: “Do you know who I am? I don’t know how to put this, but I’m kind of a big deal. People know me. I’m very important. I have many leather-bound books and my apartment smells of rich mahogany…”
So I’ve stopped using the term, “elder.” It seems to raise more questions than it answers. The fact that the Bible uses several different words to describe leadership might just give me permission to use different words that make sense in my environment. So what do we use? Sometimes we simply refer to our “leadership team members.” Others use terms like overseer, tribal-council member, and servant leader. Some have used “shepherd” but in Northern California, where I live, there’s not a big sheep industry, so we try to keep it simple.
Here’s a controversial word that has simply lost it’s meaning in my context. The Greek word used in the Bible, “hypotasso” meant “to voluntarily place yourself under.” And Paul says we’re to: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”—Ephesians 5:21 (ESV) The idea was to yield, or stop trying to fight or resist.
But my culture has taken the word to such an extreme that it’s an overly emotive word that actually gets in the way of communicating. Many take it to mean doormat, spineless second-class citizens.
But submitting is something we take the initiative to do. If someone demands that we submit to them, they don’t really understand the concept.
So what term do we use instead? How about, “put the other person first”? We can always suggest, “voluntarily place yourself, your rights, your needs in second place to someone else.” Let’s take the needless emotion and over-reaction out of the word and communicate that as believers, we’re called to put others first.
Actually, I believe the vast majority of denominational labels are confusing in my NoCal (this denotes Northern California these days) setting, but I didn’t want to offend many in my tribe so I didn’t label this section by using the term, “Baptist!”
Presbyterian, Episcopal, Baptist, Brethren, and Adventist just might (or might not) be Biblical terms. But they are confusing classifications that often take so long to download, decipher and describe that in many ways they have lost their meaning—at least they have in my culture.
Maybe they work for you. One pastor friend recently told me that he purposely did not change the name of his church from “First Baptist” because, “That brand played well in our city.”
That is precisely the point. Does the word play well in your city? If it does, keep it. If it doesn’t, set it aside and use a term that does play well!
What do we use to describe our church? We’ve found the term, “Inter-denominational” to work best where we are. “Non-denom” seems to imply someone is against denominations. “Inter” indicates we all may have different backgrounds, but we can come together. This “plays well” with the vast number of folks in our region who have some sort of Catholic background.
We’ve also discovered that in our area the word, “Network” is more palatable than “Denomination.”
We were calling our regular gathering of church planters or pastors “clusters.” That seemed to make sense to me. Webster defines the word as: “A group of similar things or people positioned or occurring closely together.”
Unfortunately, today’s Urban Dictionary states that cluster is a shorter version of something vulgar that means disaster, incompetence, or a situation where everything has gone wrong. It’s a military term that has been gaining steam and it is not “playing well” in my culture.
I recently posted on Facebook that “We had a great cluster in Arizona this week.” The only comment was from some well-meaning minister who wrote, “Great and ‘cluster’ usually don't go together.”
So, we’ve changed our church planter gatherings to the term, “Connection Events”. It’s a more positive term and I don’t want people thinking disaster when they get an invitation to meet with me!
Maybe you’re part of a Baptist Church that asks people to submit to your elders and come to cluster meetings. And perhaps those words work just fine for you and your people. But I suspect that there might be other words that don’t work so well. The point is, if we’re trying to communicate the love of Jesus to people, we need to work on communicating in a way they can understand.
Let’s work to keep our communication clear, even in a world where language changes swiftly and dramatically. And if you have other terms on your own list of words that don’t work, I’d love to hear from you.