Watch Your Language (Part One)

(This is the first in a series on how “church-speak” can thwart shared church.)

Of all people, we Christians should know that words matter. By his words God created the universe and keeps it going. Through words, God has revealed himself to us—via the Living Word and the written words of Scripture. So it should come as no surprise that practicing shared church depends heavily on our using right words in the right way.

Changing the Church Vocabulary

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Not long ago, I attended a gathering of those involved in faith-at-work ministries in our area. The event was held in Seattle Pacific University. Our speaker: Tom Nelson, author of Work Matters: Connecting Sunday Worship to Monday Work, serves as senior pastor of Christ Community Church in Leawood, KS. He told us the story of how he—after realizing the importance of equipping Christians for their weekday work—helped his church incorporate the theology of work into their Sunday gatherings.

After speaking, he opened an opportunity for questions. One person asked what he saw as the most important element in the transition. Nelson responded instantly: vocabulary. The church had to learn how to stop using certain terms and begin using other words. Like the forms construction workers use in pouring concrete, words shape our thoughts. These, in turn, harden into traditions that become nearly unbreakable.

Just a short time later, someone stood to ask another question. The man began by saying, “I’m just a layperson, but I wondered about . . . .” Before he could even finish his sentence, Nelson cut in. You have just illustrated my point about vocabulary, he said. In Christ Community Church, the habit of referring to Christians as “laypersons” had to be unlearned. Nelson was helping those in his church to carry out something Karl Barth had written years ago: “The term 'laity' is one of the worst in the vocabulary of religion and ought to be banished from the Christian conversation.” 

What Difference Does It Make?

But wait, you may be thinking, what’s so wrong with being a layperson? After all, our Christian parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents all saw themselves as laypeople. True. The word "laity" has been with us for a long time--but not long enough. Let’s look at a few reasons we should purge the term from our vocabulary.

First, the Bible never uses the word to describe Christ-followers. “We can look in vain for the term ‘lay’ in the New Testament. The laity is an unknown species in the texts of the gospel,” says Alexandre Faivre in The Emergence of the Laity in the Early Church. “There was still no distinction between clergy and laity at the time of the pastorals [I & II Timothy and Titus].”  By the third century, Faivre says, “The layman was quite certainly regarded as inferior to the clergy at that time.”

Second, when it comes to the body of Christ, such language is a put-down. Eugene Peterson has said, “Within the Christian community, there are few words that are more disabling than ‘layperson’ and ‘laity.’” That disability surfaced in the words of a blogger: “I’m just a layperson, looking in from the sidelines.” Another said, “I wouldn’t know, since I’m just a layperson.”

Third, the whole setup that labels some believers “laypersons” and others as “clergy” works powerfully against our practicing shared church. The terms reinforce a religious caste system that creates professionals and amateurs, an elite and a subclass. Sunday gatherings make this two-tiered arrangement plain for all to see. The few talk and do. The many listen and watch.

A Church Without Clergy or Laity

What a contrast to the action-packed words the New Testament uses to identify Christ-followers. For example, we—all of us—are:

  • Members of Christ’s body, each with gifts to be used to help everyone.
  • Priests who speak to, instruct, strengthen, and build up one another.
  • Branches of the Vine who bear his nourishing, refreshing fruit for the benefit of all.

That’s why, in describing what the Corinthian believers were to do when they gathered, Paul wrote: “When you meet together, one will sing, another will teach, another will tell some special revelation God has given, one will speak in tongues, and another will interpret what is said. But everything that is done must strengthen all of you” (I Cor. 14:26, NLT). No “clergy.” No “laity.” Leaders, yes, but no superstars. Simply brothers and sisters in Christ.

How can you help do away with the “clergy/laity” vocabulary? Tactfully encourage your church leaders to set the example in their teaching and speaking. As Tom Nelson writes in Work Matters, “Our local church preaching team is vigilant in avoiding dichotomous or reductionistic words and phrases such as ‘a secular job,’ ‘sacred space,’ ‘full-time ministry,’ ‘frontlines ministry,’ or ‘moving from success to significance. . . . All too often our theology says one thing and our language communicates another.”

A Favorite Tool of Jesus

Think back. In the past year, how many times have you sat in a church service in which people were invited to ask questions? The previous blog quoted from You Lost Me, in which David Kinnaman says, “Fully one-third of young Christians (36 percent) agree that ‘I don’t feel that I can ask my most pressing life questions in church.’”

Questions Begin Early

Why do toddlers and preschoolers ask so many questions? Because, instinctively, they know they can learn by doing so. Why do people die? Where do babies come from? How do birds fly? And, as any parent knows, the answer to one question may uncork a dozen more. Imagine a family gathering where the unwritten rules allow no one to ask questions. Sadly, such rules seem to shape the agenda in a great many contemporary gatherings of God’s family.

And yet the Master disciple-maker, Jesus, relied on the give-and-take of questions and answers as a key part of his teaching technique. How large a part did questions play in Jesus’s relationships with others during his brief teaching ministry on earth? To get a better idea about that, I counted the questions in the first and fourth gospels. (I did not tally questions in Mark and Luke, because they repeat many found in Matthew.) By my quick scan through Matthew and John, Jesus asked 130 questions—and was asked about the same number by others. Questions swirled around Jesus:

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He asked them of his disciples: "You of little faith, why are you so afraid?" "Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?" “How many loaves do you have?” “Do you still not understand?”

Jesus asked questions of others: "Why do you entertain evil thoughts in your hearts?” “Do you want to get well?” “Why is my language not clear to you?” "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?"

His disciples asked Jesus: "Lord, to whom shall we go?” "But Rabbi . . . a short while ago the Jews tried to stone you, and yet you are going back there?" "Lord, are you going to wash my feet?" "What does he mean by 'a little while'?”

Others asked Jesus: "What must we do to do the works God requires?" “What is truth?” "By what authority are you doing these things?" "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?"

Clearly, questions, responses, and dialogue played a prominent part as Jesus began to build his Church. It seems reasonable, then, to think he would endorse that same kind of learning context in the later stages of Church-building and disciple-making. Centuries of church tradition, though, seem to rule out  participation within our Sunday gatherings.

Can questions fit into church meetings in 2017? And, if so, how?  Good questions. Glad you asked.

In answer to the first question: Yes, questions can fit. In response to the second question: My book, Curing Sunday Spectatoritis, includes interviews with 25 church leaders who tell how, in various ways, they are making their church services more participatory. Sample just a few of the techniques they are using to open their Sunday meetings to more interaction:


One pastor, following the sermon, calls for questions and comments. Sometimes he replies to questions himself. On other occasions, he invites a knowledgeable panel to respond to the points people raise. The panel may join him up front or speak from roving microphones. Another pastor, says: “Fairly often, at the end of a sermon series, people will have questions that the teaching has raised but not answered. So we will form a panel of, say, three persons up front. Then we open things up for questions from the body. This usually makes up the entire service.”

Reports from the Front.

After hearing requests for spoken testimonies, one pastor began asking two from the congregation to tell their faith-stories during Communion services. Normally, those asked to speak are not in the limelight. Better, the pastor believes, to ask “average” believers others can identify with. As a result, some have come requesting opportunities to share their stories. Although these are not Q & A sessions, the sharing in these reports actually responds to many applicational questions people struggle with.

Community Time.

A church in Minnesota opens its Sunday meetings not with the traditional “stand-up-and-greet” moment but with “community time.” The leaders usually offer two suggested ice-breaker questions to help get conversations started. Instead of taking 60 seconds, this segment lasts from five to eight minutes. As one of the pastors says, “You can’t remember someone unless they share something with you.”

A Real Meal.

The book includes an account from my own experience while serving as pastor. During our once-per-month celebration of the Lord’s Supper, we filled the room with tables and embedded Communion into an actual meal. We emphasized the need to keep the menu simple—often soup, bread, and perhaps a salad. The families from one of our small groups—including children and young people--provided the meal and did the serving.

Each month the message for Communion Sunday focused on some aspect of Jesus’s death and its meaning for us. Then, during the meal, we paused as we shared the bread and later the cup, during which times someone briefly helped us focus on the significance of each. Conversations across the tables liberated us from any somber stiffness. Yet the focus on the meaning of the bread and cup preserved the seriousness of what we were remembering. We found that dining together restored a sense of family and one-anothering. On each table we included a few suggested conversation-starters designed to stimulate mutual encouragement and spurring on.

Sharpening a Well-Used Tool

Jesus promised, “I will build my church” (Matt. 16:18). Dialogue made up one of the major construction tools for this Carpenter/Church-Builder. The results in that first-century Church proved he knew what he was doing. As we Christians meet together in our century, can we sharpen and use the same tool?