While we’re on the subject of words…


In our churches, we often act like everyone has grown up in a congregation. In fact, we act like they’ve grown up in our particular tradition. For instance, we use really strange words. We toss them like everyone ought to know what they mean, but you actually have to spend a lot of time in a church to understand them at all.


Sometimes we use them every week, but never stop to explain them.


And there are other words that most people understand, but they would never use them outside of the church doors.


Then, there are the really wonderful words, ones that we use in our liturgy. Words that don’t have a good translation, and nobody knows what they mean.


There are beautiful words, with rich imagery that have taken on some weird meanings in our culture.

Born again

Aahhh…. and then there are the polity words. We’ve got millions of them, and we use them frequently (come to think of it, is “polity” one of them?). They’re like a secret handshake in our club. Here are the Presbyterian ones.

Amendment (particularly B)

I’ve used words that I thought everyone knew, and then I’ve found that what I was talking about something particular to a church context, and people from outside of church had no idea what I was saying.


What words do people use in your church/tradition that utterly confound people? What word only gets a workout in church–and nowhere else? What word would you love to get rid of completely? What word do you hate hearing? What should we do about the words? Is it simply part of educating people in our tradition? Or do the words exclude people too much? Should we quit using them? Or, should we keep expecting that only the people who grew up in our church ought to be able to understand what we’re saying? What words do you love? What’s worth saving?

the photo’s of a church door by kritta


22 thoughts on “While we’re on the subject of words…

  1. This exclusive, in-group vocabulary is something we have been trying to work on as a church for a while. Thank you for this reminder of the need to reflect God’s love and inclusiveness in our conversations and writing.

  2. A new Christian was sitting in a restaurant having coffee with several people from her church who were speaking a language she didn’t understand at all. She commented on the fact that she had no idea what they were saying. The leader of the group patted her hand and said, “It will take you a while to learn the language of Zion.”

    She thought it was funny and was eager to learn this new language that made her part of the club. I always thought that was a very excluding and condescending statement. I thought this was a peculiar trait of only our certain Christian leanings.

    Then when I went to work at a Presbyterian church, I found a whole new set of words. Being a person who loves words, I embraced them. However, I’ve often gone back to the use of words and how they effect outsiders. Thanks for bringing up the issue. I am so happy there is a conscious effort to eliminate the religious verbage. Keep up the good work!

  3. “What word only gets a workout in church–and nowhere else? What word would you love to get rid of completely? What word do you hate hearing?”

    “Missional.” For some reason, that word bugs the bejabbers out of me. Not what it *means.* Just the word itself, which is ingroup-speak for being an outwardly oriented community of believers. It’s the ironic dissonance between the nature of the term and what it symbolizes that just rubs me the wrong way, I guess.

  4. When we moved into our new building we had a great debate amongst the staff about what to call the space just outside the sanctuary where everyone gathered. Some wanted to call it a foyer (the concern was proper pronunciation), others a lobby (the concern was it sounded to much like a hotel or movie theater) and then there was the narthex group.

    Does anyone know what a “narthex” is? it’s a place for the non-penitent sinners to go while the rest of the congregation participates in the service. It started off as a screen in the back of the sanctuary behind which they would sit so they could at least hear the service! I don’t want any church I’m in to have a narthex.

  5. Aahh.. the great foy-er vs. foy-eh debate. I know about that.

    But I didn’t know about the narthex. Yikes!

    David, I’m with you on the missional thing. Fantastic idea, not such a great word. In fact…I always wonder…is it really a word?

  6. Well… my “favorite” word isn’t really a church word, it’s more of a seminary thing — “unpack”. As in “now let’s unpack what Moltmann means here.” How about “what does Moltmann have to say here?” Or “what does Moltmann mean by this?” — just my little pet peeve.

  7. My friend Lana was a Modern Orthodox/Conservative (depended on the day what she called herself!) Jew teaching at a Christian Divinity School. She could go on and on about things that are Church-speak. Her pet peeve was “fellowship” which is not a verb, but Christians use it as such. We also use the word a lot, and she says she’d never heard it (outside of the kind where you get money for study) outside of church-speak. She also found the idea of having separate words for personal devotional life and communal devotional life (pray v. worship) somewhat peculiar (what? you think you’re the only one praying at that time?) and thinks that we have 80thousand names for pastor just to confuse people (pastor, rector, vicar, associate, assistant, bishop, minister, priest, chaplain…)

  8. “Baptist” is a word I would love to get rid of. It scares the begibbers out of people! And as a life long Baptist and pastor of a Baptist church – we constantly have to educate people to what we are not. Is “begibbers” even a real word?

  9. Please don’t use an apostrophe unless the work is possessive (photo’s is absolutely wrong, and I know you know this).

    I love those words. I love to teach them when I preach. We have so many of them. Righteousness. Justification. Atonement. Wow, the list goes on. Glad you brought them up.

  10. Debbie,

    When I was in New England, I was so pleasantly surprised to find out how cool Baptists are. They were much different from the Southern Baptists I grew up with in Florida.

    “Fellowship” is probably my least favorite church word. It makes me think of men on a boat. But what do we call that thing after church? Happy Hour without the Happy?

    The whole devotional life vs. communal life dichotomy is very interesting…

  11. Ann, Good point about teaching as you preach but I wasn’t talking about the scriptural concepts, like righteousness, atonement or justification. The words I see mentioned here are churchy, sub-culture words, like narthex, fellowship, doxology and benediction.

    It is good that you reminded us that we must embrace the words which are vital to our faith. Thanks for the reminder.

  12. I’m a staff member of the General Assembly Council of the PC(USA), and it’s all the acronyms that get thrown around this building that drive me absolutely batty: ACSWP, ACWC, ACREC, NNPCW, GAC, OGA, GACOR…the list goes on. And on. And on…

    Actually, if you want to see just how long the list is, check this out: http://www.pcusa.org/gac/acronyms.htm

    And these are just the *frequently* used acronyms! This isn’t even a comprehensive list!

    We use these acronyms as if they were words, and not only do we assume that people know not only what the letters stand for, we also assume that they know what the organization or committee being referred to is and what it does.

    Talk about insider speak!

  13. We ended up naming the “narthex” where I served previously the gathering area. It worked well and I kind of like what is says. This was a church that began in a movie theater and new all about the lobby – the smell of popcorn would waft in as they were singing the final song each week.

  14. Noelle,

    I just found you’re comment. It was in moderation due to the link.

    And thanks for that link! I think I’m going to print it out, laminate it, and put it in my wallet so I can begin to understand my denomination….

  15. Andrew,

    Thank you for letting me use it! Your photos are beautiful.

    I’m confused though. There is credit and a link back to your profile, according to Flickr’s Community Guidelines. That’s how you found your photo… by searching for the link. Is there something else that I should be doing?

  16. Here’s a link back to the photo on Flickr. Clearly you didn’t intend any offence or anything, so it’s all fine with me. 🙂 Again, I am glad you like the photos.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s