Want to help people follow Jesus? Lose the condescending language

A big part of my work lately has to do with helping United Methodist churches, clergy, and leaders in the denomination’s West Virginia Conference launch new ministries.

For a deconstructionist like me, that can be challenging work. It requires me on the one hand to nurture a desire for people to follow the way of Jesus, while on the other hand trying to dismantle generations of harmful evangelistic practices that have a lot to do with why my services are needed in the first place.

Let’s face it…in many ways, the church has become its own worst enemy.

Not only are new people NOT joining our congregations, but more people than ever before are actively leaving.[1]

The former may imply that the church’s message isn’t being heard. But the latter explicitly means that the message—or at least the way it’s being delivered—is being rejected.

Honoring human dignity

It’s tempting to oversimplify these trends in search of easy solutions. Frankly, that’s the kind of shallow thinking that leads to never-ending culture wars, animosity toward people who don’t hold our views, and the desire for political power and control to enforce a narrow set of “Christian” viewpoints in society.

In our zeal to share a faith that shapes and informs our lives, we misinterpret scripture and tradition in ways that make it seem like forcing our way on others is actually a right and loving thing to do.

But if we are to take the words and actions of Jesus seriously, we must respect and honor the innate dignity of each human being with whom we share space on the spinning blue ball we call Earth.

Sadly, much of our language neglects that foundational ethos.

Language matters, and the way we talk about people matters the most.

So when we observe trends of decline in both participation and influence, perhaps our lexicon is one of the first places we should look.

Maybe we need to think about how people who are not part of our faith communities hear and understand the words we use to describe them…and how that makes them respond to us (or not respond at all).

I’ve been stewing on this concept for some time now, and while the following list is by no means comprehensive, I think maybe it’s a good beginning.

Before I get started, let me just say that I genuinely believe we use most of what’s listed below not out of malice, but just out of habit. And habits can be changed.

So here, in no particular order, are my top three words and phrases it’s time for Christians and the institutional church to lose:

1. Saving souls

Let’s just start with this one, shall we?

Could there be a more condescending way to talk to people who don’t share your beliefs?

I get it. Most Christians believe that the way of Jesus (whatever it is they believe about that) really is a better way to live. Many Christians deeply believe that intellectual assent to the Jesus concept is necessary for our disembodied postmortem souls to be transported to the eternal paradise of Heaven and to avoid the eternal conscious torment of Hell.

I personally don’t subscribe to that theology, but it’s understandable that people who do want that same thing for others.

The problem is, it sets up a relational dynamic that is very non-Jesus-y.

It creates a superior-inferior dualism that has become the very basis for the type of colonial Christianity that is responsible for untold atrocities and well-documented instances of cultural genocide throughout our history. Evils perpetuated by Christians upon people who are not Christian (or even not the “right kind” of Christian).

The linguistic roots for the biblical notion of “salvation” have much more to do with restoration and wholeness and justice than with some kind of existential fire insurance.

And sadly one of the things people in 21st Century America need restoration, wholeness, and justice from is what much of modern-day Christianity has become.

2. Reaching people for Jesus/Finding the “lost”

When churches say they want to “reach people for Jesus,” they may mean to imply that they want the best for others, to help them find the beauty of a life following the ways of the Christ.

But what it often really means in practical terms is to perpetuate an assumption that we have something that other people need, and we’re going to give it to them whether they consent to it or not.

Let’s be honest…“reaching people for Jesus” usually really means “recruiting people to our church.” We’ve gone adrift in the euphemism.

Also, referring to people as “lost” simply because they don’t share our beliefs is insulting.

It’s spiritual abuse. And we need to stop it.

3. Unchurched/Non-believer

As I mentioned at the outset, one of the inescapable trends of recent times is that there are now more people in the US who are not attached to some kind of faith community either by participation or membership than those who are. That includes not only Christian communities, but all types of faith traditions.

So when we talk about church growth or revitalization, one of the first things we do is apply categories and labels to those we perceive as being “in” and those we perceive as being ”out.”

Again, finding terms to describe people’s relationship with religion is understandable.

The problem is that we tend to use that language to create a caste system, where “churched/believer” is superior to “unchurched/non-believer.”

It’s rank objectification…a quality that is, in fact, decidedly unChristian.

Side note: As a Christian pastor who spends more time with people who do not identify as Christians than with those who do, I can say from first-hand experience that many “unchurched” people are far kinder, more generous, and more compassionate than many of the Christians I know. I think Jesus said something about knowing a tree by the fruit it bears.

Special honorable mention: Christian clichés and platitudes

“God won’t give you more than you can handle.”

“Everything happens for a reason.”

“I’m not perfect, just forgiven.”

“I’m just sharing the truth…sometimes the truth hurts.”

Please. Someone hand me a barf bag.

Christians love to use clichés and platitudes to minimize people’s suffering.

And yes, I know those phrases usually come from a place of love and concern. Sometimes, as a participant in our New Wineskins community recently pointed out, they’re the only words we know to use in difficult situations.

But bumper sticker sayings reveal something else: a lack of depth to our beliefs.

If all we have to offer in the face of hardships is trite aphorisms, how does that make our faith more attractive to those who don’t share it?

Honorable mention: Using gendered (especially male) language to describe God

Seriously y’all. We’re still doing this?

Honestly, most people I know would, when asked, state that God has no gender.

So why is it that we still insist on using male pronouns every time we refer to God?

I know that’s what most of us were taught to do, I understand that it’s a deeply ingrained habit, and I understand that most of the time it’s not meant maliciously…at least not consciously.

I understand that it feels awkward to either use non-gendered pronouns or (my personal preference) no pronouns at all for God.

But when we see in our news feeds daily the ways that all the various forms of toxic masculinity cause very real harm and trauma to people, why would we insist on using the same gendered language that caused their trauma to refer to the God we want them to believe in?

It’s lazy. Do the work, and get over yourself.

Shake the dust

Many of you might ask why, if I have so much trouble with the way Christianity is expressed and the way the Church behaves, do I stay? Why not just walk away from this flawed faith, my ordination, and the institutional container in which they exist?

It’s a fair question. And honestly, I’m not 100% sure I have a good answer.

What I will say, though, is that the more and more I understand Jesus’ agenda as that of liberator for the exploited, oppressed, and marginalized in the world, the more I want to be part of it.

Despite all of the problematic language and actions of church people that do more harm than good, I still cling—however tenuously—to the idea that the church might have something positive to offer the world.

But we’ve got to break our habits of condescension and coercion. We’ve got to stop trying to force-feed our faith to people. We’ve got to learn to respect and honor the dignity of every person we encounter, even—or maybe especially—if they don’t share our beliefs.

When Jesus sent his followers out to the towns and villages to share his good news of liberation, he had some advice for when they encountered opposition. And it didn’t have anything to do with forcefully changing people’s minds, creating dualistic categories of who’s in and who’s out, or spreading insipid clichés.

It was simply to move on. To shake the dust of that place off their feet and go on to the next one.

Maybe Jesus had enough faith in his message to know that not everyone could accept it right away. Maybe he trusted God enough to know that, to paraphrase a seminary classmate of mine, no one was going to believe in God because they lost an argument.

Maybe the message is simply to love and let live.

Maybe the Church should learn to do likewise.

[1] According to Barna’s 2020 State of the Church report, one in three practicing Christians have stopped coming to church in the Covid-19 era. https://www.barna.com/research/new-sunday-morning-part-2/

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