A Visitor’s Perspective: Watch your Language!

September 19, 2007 by

This is part 4 of a 9-part series on attending church from a visitor’s perspective. You can read the original post to get a better understanding of David’s experience visiting churches for the first time.

Within a week or so of moving to the South, I had a flat tire. My roommate, who was from India, took me to a local garage to get the tire patched. Out of the shop walks a character right out of your strongest stereotype. In order to get at the screw piercing my tire the mechanic proceeded to bark some directions at me in a language I couldn’t understand. By the contorted expression on my face he concluded that I didn’t understand him, so he added some confusing gestures to his drawl. Only after my Indian roommate translated (English being his sixth language, not counting Southern Drawl) could I follow his directions. At that point I realized I was an outsider.

Few things make people feel like an outsider more than the language used around them. If this is true, how does the language we use in church make our visitors feel? To avoid excluding people we have to pay attention to verbose nomenclature that we use in our worship service–since this is the way most people are introduced to our church.

There are two basic categories of obscure words we use–ancient and Christian-ese. Ancient words are the most obvious examples but are difficult because we think we know what they mean, but have a hard time coming up with a clear definition. For instance, a song might sing to “Jehovah”–which we know as a name for God. It’s beside the fact that this is a mistransliteration of “Yahweh” that comes to us via the German language–what do you think this word makes your first time visitors think of when they visit? Probably the people who woke them up on Saturday morning in order to hand them a tract.

The King James Bible has had an immense influence in our culture, and it continues to influence even the most contemporary church service. If you’ve ever been in a church that has tried to sing, “As the Deer,” you know what I mean–half the church “pants” for water while the other half “panteth.” Not only is this awkward for a visitor, but it is confusing too. This goes for the “thees” and “thous” as well. You might consider King James English more poetic or pious than the common vernacular but, since none of us speak in this way any longer, it excludes our visitors.

The book on church visitors: Unwelcome: 50 Ways Churches Drive Away First-Time VisitorsMore:

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David Zimmerman

David Zimmerman is a former pastor who lives in Lake Wylie, S.C., with his wife, Christie, and his step-dog, Murphy. You can also check out his personal blog.
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14 Responses to “A Visitor’s Perspective: Watch your Language!”

  • Betsy
    September 19, 2007

    This is so good. Sometimes, being raised in church, we don’t realize how very odd we sound (“plead the blood”?!) to outsiders. Our church is very conscious of this, and we try to use different words, or use the traditional (and Biblical) words, but continually define and “un-weird” them. For instance, every time my pastor uses the word “repent”, he reminds us that it means “to change your mind” or to “align how you see something with how God sees it”.
    Christians can be so weird, calling each other “brother” or telling people in worship to “press in”. I can’t imagine how awkward that must be for someone who wasn’t raised in it.
    Great points!

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  • Derrick Henslee
    September 19, 2007

    I think this is a really appropriate discussion that churches need to have. Our job as churches is not to be the Christian equivalent of a country club. We need to be reaching out to our community. The way that we communicate to new people is crucial to them feeling welcome. The “Christianese” form of vernacular can be really distracting. I don’t think most Christians realize that they talk this way, as it has become such a normal way for us to communicate with each other. I know what “washed in the blood” means, but to a first time church attender, this might sound a little morbid….or a lot morbid! So, when we use songs that have these mature theological thoughts in their lyrics, we try to break them down and explain them during transitions. You have to be super intentional about it.
    Great post!

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  • geoffreybrown
    September 19, 2007

    It’s very true, but there’s one important exception: if people know one Christian prayer, it’s the Lord’s Prayer. And if they know it at all, they know it in King James English.
    I once tried a vernacular version of the Lord’s Prayer on a bunch of kids age 5 to 12, and they all immediately shut up as soon as they realized I didn’t say “…art in Heaven”.
    They shut up completely. Minus the archaic forms, it was totally unfamiliar to them.

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  • courtenay
    September 19, 2007

    We talked about something somewhat similar in our staff meeting last week – insider language. We refer to rooms and other places on our campus by names that they are not labeled as, assuming that everyone knows what we mean. Some of our newer staff don’t even know! We are working on developing a consistent vocabulary and signage to go along with it.

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  • revolutionfl
    September 19, 2007

    i heard Darrin Patrick say this today on a podcast, “Churches that use “us and them” language usually do not have any of “them” in attendance.

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  • Jason McCoy
    September 19, 2007

    Revolution- you are correct!!
    We work a lot too on getting rid of insider language…but you know, what Geoffrey said is also true. There are times we do equally alienating things in the effort to connect.
    One time, I visited a church (for the first…and ONLY time) and went to the bathroom. A guy came in and started talking to me (man, he already broke the rules- “no talking in the bathroom”…so it can only get better right? RIGHT?)
    And he says- “you ever wonder what 200 pounds of wet leather feels like on ya?” And while I said no, he awkwardly tried to explain that he was baptized in his leather motorcycle gear recently. Which is great and all, but I left. He didn’t even say hey…or hey, my name is, or hey have I seen you here before? It was right outta the gate with the “wet leather” talk.
    I didn’t know WHAT was coming next and I wasn’t sticking around to find out.
    So I guess now I wonder what version of the wet leather line I have done to people??? Oh the shame…

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  • Pastor Chris
    September 20, 2007

    What’s a narthex?
    What’s a sexton?
    This week, I was asked “What’s an evangelist?” and even “What’s a pastor?”
    Pastor Chris

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  • geoffreybrown
    September 20, 2007

    Pastor Chris must be talking to Episcopalians! I have to admit that we are the most notorious coiners of “our club” words:
    …and these are just a few of them! (Interestingly, these all have plain English definitions and in most cases synonyms — but they just aren’t used in church!)

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    • James M.
      October 25, 2011

      I have known our Lord Jesus for over thirty years and I am so glad of that.
      I also am soooo glad that I have a dictionary on my computer. Let’s give newcomers to the faith a break and speak the language we speak in our everyday lives, that is if we want them to stay.
      Amen…..let’s hear it, I said Amen.

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  • Tim Wall
    September 20, 2007

    It’s a valid point, but with limitations, I think. Sure we need to keep terms familiar in general, but I think we should also not be afraid to teach truth, even though it might be unfamiliar.
    Some might take the point to mean steering away from complex and difficult passages of scripture or study because it might seems “unfamiliar” to the guest. Or, possibly using songs in worship with dumbed down words instead of words from scripture … etc. I think that would be taking the point too far.
    This, of course, gets into the debate of who is the worship service for — the believer or the unbeliever?

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  • Jason McCoy
    September 22, 2007

    That was an interesting question Tim…one that folks involved with church run into a lot! (This, of course, gets into the debate of who is the worship service for — the believer or the unbeliever?)
    But what if it isn’t about either? What if the service is about Jesus instead of about us? (I don’t mean FOR him, in the sense that we don’t have anything he needs…but targeted toward Him instead of toward us)
    I don’t mean that in a smarmy way…and I am sincerely asking the question, as opposed to criticizing your post. So, all that to say, this is something I wrestle with persoanlly.
    Is it possible that our services aren’t supposed to be for us? For example- when someone says “This church isn’t feeding me”…isn’t that kind of preposterous? Shouldn’t we be figuring out how to feed ourselves? I don’t think this negates the language usage question- or of having to think about how to be inclusive…but is it perhaps a setup to assume that the focus is either insider or outsider in terms of the purpose of our gatherings?

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  • onesam
    September 24, 2007

    There are a lot of words that even regular attenders don’t understand. A few weeks ago a guy visited our church and asked a mate of mine what “Zion” was. It had appeared in a song we had sung. My friend didn’t know and turned to me, and I have to confess I didn’t know how to explain it in the context of the song we had sung. And it was probably a song we had sung a hundred times before.
    Communion is always an interesting time. Drinking the blood of Jesus and eating his flesh? How well do we explain that when we share this sacrament. What’s a sacrament anyway?
    Another friend who visited my church, which I consider to be quite an accessible and relevant church, said it was like we were speaking a foreign language. Which was the point of this article. But I was particularly concerned as this was a guy who had been to church for most of his adult life and had stopped going a few years ago…

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  • David
    September 24, 2007

    The question about whether the worship service is for believers or not is perhaps the most important one. I don’t remember if I make this comment in a future article or not (they’ve already been written- sorry to spill the beans, Kevin) but I like to make a distinction between “seeker-sensitive” and “seeker-driven.”
    Because we want non-believers coming to our church and seeing what we see about Jesus, we should always be “seeker-senstive” and avoid “verbose nomenclature” that only seeks to create an us-them diachotomy.
    On the other hand I don’t think we should be letting the seekers drive what we are doing in our worship service. Inheritly there is something they will never “get” about our worship because they don’t believe (didn’t Augustine say “believing leads to seeing”?). The best example of this is worship itself- something entirely useless and a waste of time to an un-believer no matter how we explain it or how sensitive we might be to them.

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  • Megan
    October 11, 2007

    I can share from the experience of our church. My pastor has purposely set the direction of our church NOT to be traditionally “seeker-driven” in the sense that David means. We don’t simplify the language of the Bible (though we do use the NIV translation, and not the KJV), and our service is explicitly geared toward equipping believers and calling to those who are hungry for the Lord. We are an eleven-year-old church (as of this last weekend) and have about a thousand regular members. We’ve had hundreds of people commit their lives to Christ this year. The Lord is really working in our midst. I think it’s a good indicator that if the Spirit of God is present, that will speak to hearts and draw those who are hungry — even if there are some things they don’t understand.
    If you look at Jesus’ teachings, he sure didn’t speak plainly most of the time. Many of the things he said and taught left his disciples scratching their heads and asking each other questions about what on earth he meant. But they stuck around, because they saw the power of God at work in and through him. They knew that, even if they didn’t understand it all right now, Jesus had the words of life. Do we?
    I’m in complete agreement that we need to ensure we’re not putting unnecessary stumbling blocks in the way of those who are genuinely seeking. But I also think that if our vocabulary is our primary strategy in attracting the world to Christ, we’re missing something. They ought to be coming because they see the power of God displayed and the Spirit of God at work in his people. That will keep them around through the inevitable misunderstandings that will come up as they seek to understand a God who confounds and transcends the wisdom of the world.

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