Saturday, April 26, 2008

Words Are Important

Pastor Larry Beane, in his Father Hollywood post titled "Bad Language", discusses the linguistic evolution of the word church, and how we now have come to the use of the words churched and unchurched. He discusses the importance of words, and how their careless misuse can water down our confession. Here are a few of the highlights:
However, I'm seeing quite a lot of uses of the word "churched" coming from Protestant sources, which has spilled over into our own Lutheran vocabulary. In fact, with the Ablaze!(tm) program, nearly every correspondence from synod or district includes the word "unchurched" describing the intended target of our mission endeavors. The words "churched" and "unchurched" are adjectival variations of the word "church" used as a verb. In this case, "church" is not being used as it is in the creeds, as a noun, a thing we confess as an article of faith, but rather it has become an verbal adjective to describe something one does. In fact, we often run into a strained related expression: "to do church."

I don't believe this is a natural evolutionary shift in language to accommodate changing realities, rather I think this is symptomatic of a shift in confession. If "church" is a verb that we can "do," than it is no longer a mystery to confess, but rather an activity, like swimming or throwing a baseball. And a "churched" or "unchurched" person is not defined by membership in the church (the noun), but rather by what he does (i.e. "going to church" as an activity, a verb).

So, the word "church" used as a verb has been around for six centuries, but there has still been a recent subtle shift in meaning. For in 14th century England, everyone (with very few exceptions, such as Jews) were members of the Church. There simply were no "unchurched" people in the way the term is used today. A woman who was "churched" was not a person who didn't go to church, or who had never heard of Jesus. Rather to be "churched" was literally to be brought to the building to receive a rite. This rite is today called the "Blessing of a Mother After Childbirth" (LSB Pastoral Care Companion, p. 59).

This bringing of believers into the building to receive a rite is not how our synod uses the term in speaking of reaching "unchurched" people (meaning unbelievers). The word "unchurched" is not biblical, nor is it traditional in this context (just as "doing church" is neither biblical, creedal, nor traditional).

Rather Scripture speaks of believers and non-believers. The mission work of the Church is to "make disciples" by baptism and teaching, to bring people into the Church (ecclesia) through God's means of instilling belief (the "implanted word" of Jas 1:21). We are to bring people to the Church by bringing them to the faith that is proclaimed - typically in a church building.

In speaking of people as "unchurched," we are subtly altering what we mean by the word "church," and thus altering the confession of our creed without changing a word.

I believe we should speak of people as "believers" (instead of "churched") and unbelievers (instead of "unchurched"). The word "unchurched" is too ambiguous. Are Lutherans who attend services only on Christmas and Easter unchurched? Are unbelievers who attend our services churched? What about members of sects, or cults? It also waters down the third article, if not changing it in the minds of many. It turns membership in the church into an activity, which borders on turning grace into a work.

The fact that the word "unchurched" is trendy and used by "experts" in the unbiblical branch of business marketing known as the Church Growth Industry, I believe the term should be shunned. It is a word that is foreign to our Lutheran emphasis on the "monergism of grace" as well as the historic confession of the noun "Church."

I think we need to watch our language. We ought not allow Oprah and Dr. Phil to become the guardians of our ecclesiastical expression.

Maybe instead of speaking of our "relationship" with God, we should start saying "communion" again. Maybe instead of "witnessing," we should be "confessing." Instead of "messages" maybe our pastors should unabashedly preach "sermons" again. Instead of saying "we worship a hundred people on Sunday," maybe we should say: "We worship one God in three persons." Instead of describing every activity as a "ministry" (even basketball and quilting), maybe we should reserve the term for the proclamation of the Word and the administration of the sacraments. Instead of "servant events" maybe our young people (not our "youth") should be learning that we are servants of Christ all the time, that the Christian life is a life of service, that service is not a staged "event." We ought not be ashamed to worship God in "church sanctuaries", instead of describing such holy places using such almost clinical pragmatic terminology as "worship centers."

Words are important. Carelessness can water down our confession. We must be wary that Satan will use every means at his disposal to strip us of our faith. "Who controls the past', ran the Party slogan, 'controls the future: who controls the present controls the past,'" says George Orwell through the narrator in 1984. "In the beginning was the Word," says God through the Evangelist in John 1:1.

1 comment:

RevFisk said...

Ahh...but then we'd have to admit that all those people aren't believers. That would mean some of our kids too.