The mission comes first.
Ahead of my ideas, my preferences and my well-worn, dearly-loved terminology.
Because of that, whenever an extra-biblical idea or turn of phrase is anything but clear in the way it advances the message, we need to find and use a better manner of communication.
The Right Words At The Right Time
Every area of human interest has its own language. And rightly so. If a doctor had to use non-medical words during a delicate surgery, the loss of time and accuracy would cost lives.
It’s the same in the church. We have theological terms for good reasons. Among those who have a theological education, words like “eschatology”, “cessationism” and “ecumenism” act like shorthand to make theological conversations possible.
But there are places and times where insider lingo is appropriate and places where it is not. For a surgeon, medical terms are helpful during surgery, but they’re confusing and scary when talking to a worried family after the procedure is over.
In the church, we’ve been using some terms in ways that not only aren’t helpful to newcomers and nonbelievers, they are actually causing confusion among long-time Christians.
Here are 5 terms with common usages that we need to reconsider. Now.
1. “Pulpit” as a synonym for “preaching”
No, there’s nothing wrong with using a pulpit to hold your sermon notes. And calling it a pulpit is fine in some contexts, too. But we need to stop using the word as a synonym for the act of preaching.
When church folks say things like “that church has always had a great pulpit” they don’t mean the physical wooden lectern (usually), they mean the preaching that comes from the person standing behind it. So that’s the term we need to use.
If “that church has always had great preaching” is what we mean, that’s what we need to say.
When we use the word pulpit as a substitute for preaching we unintentionally give too much significance to the piece of furniture sitting on the platform.
As Thom S. Rainer points out in his book Who Moved My Pulpit?, some church members “see the pulpit as something sacred in itself” (pg 22). I’m convinced that using “pulpit” as a synonym for great preaching is one of the reasons for such misplaced values.
No piece of furniture is sacred. Neither is the preacher. Only the message is.
2. “Altar” as a substitute for “being more prayerful”
When we say our churches need to “get back to the altar” what we mean is that we should be putting a greater emphasis on prayer. But as we’ve seen with the pulpit, when we use the word altar as a synonym for prayer, we can inadvertently give more credit to the wooden kneeling bench than to the act of prayer itself.
If we want our church members to pray more, we need to emphasize prayer, not the physical structure we call an altar. After all, it doesn’t matter where we pray, it matters that we pray.
3. “Revival” when we mean “bringing in a preacher from out of town”
True revival is a state of the heart and the spirit, not a series of meetings featuring an out-of-town preacher. It’s something we can prepare our hearts for, but it’s not something we can schedule.
Revival is an act of God, not an event on the calendar.
When we use the term “revival” to describe an upcoming series of meetings, we risk watering down the meaning of the term when true revival actually breaks out.
4. “Relevant” when we should be saying “contextual”
Being relevant is better than being boring. But being relevant has taken on a lot of baggage in recent years. Instead of meaning “appropriate for the context”, as was originally intended by that term, it has come to mean “doing what the cool churches do.”
If context is what matters, context is the word we should use.
5. “Back to…”
I don’t want to go back to anything.
Not to the Bible, to the altar, or to the basics.
It’s not that we should abandon scripture, prayer or the foundations of our faith. Of course not. But instead of going back to them, we need to move forward as guided by them.
For many people, “back to the Bible” sounds more like reminiscing than vision-casting. More about the past than the future. More about nostalgia than being open to the new thing God wants to do among us.
The Bible has never been more applicable than it is today – until tomorrow, when it will be even more applicable than it is today. Holding true to its foundational truths isn’t backward-looking, it’s as forward-thinking as we will ever get.
Why Terminology Matters
Language changes. If any of the terms in this article have a special place in your heart, I understand. As a third generation pastor who has been in church literally all my life (I was in a bassinet on the piano bench next to my mother on the first Sunday after I was born) they mean a lot to me, too.
But I’ve stopped using them because they’re more likely to cause confusion than bring clarity.
I want my words to be so clear and simple that there’s no room for misunderstanding.
Holding on to terms because we connect to them emotionally is just another way of putting our feelings before the mission. And that is not just poor communication, that’s idolatry.
When we put the mission first, it becomes easier to lay our own preferences aside. As the Apostle Paul reminded us with his example of selflessness, “I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. … I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” (1 Corinthians 9:19 & 22)
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