Bad language (3): being inaccurate

May 232013

I’ve been a little hung up on words recently. We need to be growing in our understanding of the language of our faith, but not in a way that excludes people or makes learning theory the most important thing. There’s one other thing, though, which I think we need to be wary off…

Getting sloppy

As we grow in our understanding, we learn all sorts of new and wonderful things. One common side effect of that is that we can forget the basics, or not consider them as important. We often don’t spend that much time thinking about how we use simple language, and how that affects those who may not understand things as we do.

Let me give an example: the word ‘church’. Of course we all know the church is the people, not the building. But in what ways do we most commonly hear and use that word. Is it about people? Really? I can think of lots of ways we use it:

  • To talk about a building (‘This church was built in 1846’)
  • To talk about one room in that building (‘We start with coffee in the foyer, then move through to the main church for the service.’)
  • To talk about an event (‘I’m looking forward to church on Sunday’)
  • To talk about a denomination (‘I’m part of the Baptist Church’)
  • To talk about an activity or style (‘This is how we do church’)
None of those is about a group of people. None of them is something that is inherently wrong (I don’t hate buildings, events or rooms), but they aren’t quite what the word ‘church’ originally meant.

Does that matter, really?

And this is where you might well say, ‘Come on Dave, does it really matter? Language evolves and changes. Words change in the meaning they have. Just deal with it!’ I have some sympathy for that. Why can’t ‘church’ mean both the people and the building? We all understand what we mean in any given context, surely, so it’s not that much of a problem.

But that’s the point. If we all did always understand, and everyone else did, then fine. But that’s not what language is about – language is about communicating so that everyone can understand what is going on. I think we are in deep confusion about what the church really is. Lots of people – forgivably – do think the church is first and foremost a building.

The way we use words shapes the way we end up thinking about things. ‘Church’ is an important word, and when it starts to mean ‘building’ then buildings suddenly become much more important than they were ever meant to be. And as it stops meaning ‘people’, people become less important than we were always meant to be. We start to think in the ways we speak.

And it’s not just us! People who weren’t taught at Sunday School that ‘the church is the people, not the building’ (a truism that wouldn’t need to exist if we just used ‘church’ to mean people all the time) don’t have any defences against such a misunderstanding. When we use that word to mean all sorts of things it doesn’t, we add layers to their confusion.

Ultimately, I don’t care if the words start to change. Call it whatever you like – I care deeply though if our theology and understanding starts to change as a result, or if we lead other people’s to do so. That matters a great deal.

Trying to be different

I don’t think that suddenly using all words ‘correctly’ will solve the problems, but I try to be as accurate as I can to avoid leading myself and others further astray. I make a point of referring to our ‘church’s building’. I’m glad that our pastor encourages our church to call the main room the ‘auditorium’ instead of ‘the main church’. I also try to ask people if they will be at the ‘meeting’, not if they will be ‘at church’. If we really believe the church is people, surely that should come out in the way we speak.

Other words I think face this kind of danger include ‘worship’, ‘pray’ and ‘mission’.

Any others, anyone? Not so we can enjoy having a rant and enjoying our own sense of being more correct than others, but so we can avoid unnecessary mistakes in our underlying theology.

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Bad language (2): missing the point

May 162013
I’ve been exploring the importance of learning and using the language of our faith. Last week I considered one potential danger: being exclusive in our use of language. Today, I want to consider a second way language can go wrong.

Words have limits

Words are great. I love them. I used to spend my free periods in 6th form playing Scrabble. I used to go to the pub at university with friends and play Scrabble. I still really enjoy a good game of Scrabble. It’s great. I love words. (If anyone wants to get together for Scrabble, I’m in.)

But words have limits. They are tools – they’re the means, not the end. We use words to express something deeper than the words themselves. Words and phrases are like signposts which point to truths. They aren’t, in themselves, the truths. My pastor has said that ‘words are the clothes our thoughts wear.’ It’s the thoughts that matter. We just use the words to get there, to provide a framework with which to understand those thoughts and to communicate them with others.

An example. I can say the words ‘I love you’ to Mel (my wife). It’s true, and it’s one way I can express my love. But what matters aren’t the words, rather the truth that underlies them – that I do in fact love her. Take the words away, and it’s still true. If it weren’t true then knowing and using the words wouldn’t suddenly make it true.

Words point to things that are true. If they don’t, they’re meaningless. Words are limited.

Missing the point

So what, Dave? Well, as I think about growing in our understanding and use of language, there’s a real danger that we miss the point. I think it’s important to pursue greater understanding of our faith, and part of that is language. But the language isn’t the point – it is just a helper to get us to the point.

I want to grow in my relationships with God. I want to know Him deeply. I don’t just want to know lots of words or things about Him – I want to know HIM.

I believe that books, study, words and theology can help massively in that pursuit. But I also know – from my own experience and others’ – that they can get in the way. We can get fixated on the framework of language and systems that we’ve built up to help us understand God, so fixated that we never really get to know God any better. It’s like getting so focused on the scaffolding that we forget the building behind it.

This series of posts wouldn’t have started if it weren’t for a slight frustration with a lack of interest in theology and theological language in some quarters. But I don’t want to swing from lack of interest in theological language which leaves us without valuable tools in growing deeper with God to the other extreme: an excessive and unhealthy interest in theological language which distracts from really growing deeper with God.

Words are great. Theology is wonderful. But they are only ever the tools, helping us understand more about God. We must never stop there. We need also seek to know God. Let’s not miss the wood for the trees.

I have one more thought on language going wrong, and that will come soon.

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Bad language (1): forgetting the journey

May 102013

I wrote a post on here last week called ‘Learning the Lingo’. I suggested we pick up vocabulary about the things we care about. Sport, TV, hobbies, professions – they all have technical language. If we care enough, we pick up the relevant lingo.

I also suggested the same is true for Christians. If our faith matters to us, we will grow in our understanding of it, and that means learning and using the language of our faith.

But that’s not the full picture. The pursuit and use of language can be exceedingly damaging. In my next three posts, I want to explore three things to avoid with our language. First up…

Forgetting the journey

I know a fair amount of theological language. I had to pick it up while I was studying, and a lot of it I still use in some way. Lots I don’t. But every theological term I have in my head was once not in my head. I had to learn it at some point. Whether it was as simple as ‘Bible’ or something more extravagant like ‘pneumatology’, at some point I went from not knowing what it meant to having some idea.

I have come on a journey, and so has everyone. We are all at different points on that journey. And we don’t all have to get to the same place – there is no fixed goal. But we often have very short memories, and start using terms and concepts as soon as we know them, assuming others do too. We forget the journey we’re on, and forget that others are on one too.

Whether it’s in a sermon, a Bible study, a casual conversation, a blog(!) or wherever, we can assume others are equipped with the same vocab we are. They might be. They might not be. But we shouldn’t assume.

Here’s the thing: it can be really damaging. It makes people feel stupid. It makes people question their commitment. It makes people feel as if their faith is deficient. Or it just confuses them and acts as a barrier to growth. It can be so exclusive and harmful.

Being careful

This is something that those who regularly preach or do similar things probably need to pay attention to the most. But it is not exclusive to them – everyone needs to be careful.

I try to be so conscious of this when I teach or speak (particularly in public where there isn’t always the chance for people to ask for clarification), just because I know how small I sometimes felt in lectures at university where every sixth word felt like a foreign language. We need to be careful we don’t forget our journey. We need to treat people at a different point on that journey in a way that will help to build them up instead of knocking them down.

I think there are little things we can do to help avoid this pitfall:

  • Deliberately remembering when it was we picked up certain terms so we don’t fall into the trap of thinking we always knew them.
  • Being careful to consider the background and context of the person/people we are speaking to, so we neither patronise nor speak over their heads.
  • Explaining terms and phrases that we know might confuse.
  • Trying to create a culture where saying ‘I don’t know’ is not a sign of weakness or stupidity, but a sign of desire to grow. We can start by admitting our own ignorance.
  • Asking people to be honest and tell us if the way we speak is exclusive, alienating or off-putting.

On that note, please please be honest and tell me if the way I speak is exclusive, alienating or off-putting.

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Personal Life Statement

May 092013

During my year as an intern at Gold Hill, I have been part of a training programme called ‘Growing Leaders’. I’ve mentioned it here before, and it has been very good indeed.

One thing we were encouraged to do (which I’ll admit I found a little daunting) was to work through a process to come up with a ‘Personal Life Statement’. This is like a mission statement for a church, company or organisation – only for an individual. Me. It is meant to help give direction for your life, to work out what priorities should be and when you should say ‘no’ to things because they aren’t where your focus should lie. Of course it will develop through life, and we’ve been encouraged to revisit it continually. I have found it extremely useful, and would encourage everyone to do something similar!

Where to start?!

In case you want to explore this for yourself, this is the process I went through to arrive at mine (I should add, the whole process should be doused in prayer):

  1. Reflect on your ‘SHAPE’, making notes at each step:
    – Spiritual Gifts
    – Heart’s Desire
    – Abilities
    – Personality
    – Experience
  2. Ask yourself some searching questions:
    – What 3 things would I like to achieve in the next 5 years?
    – What opportunities would I like to have in my life?
    – At the end of my life, what would I like to be remembered for?
  3. Akd other people who know you well to answer a simple question:
    – “What should I do with my life?” (I found the answers to this part from the people I asked to be so enlightening and helpful!)
  4. Look over all the notes from this whole process, and pull together themes and recurring ideas.
  5. Formulate it into some kind of short paragraph.
  6. Continually revisit, re-evaluate and adjust throughout life.

For various parts of this (especially around ‘SHAPE’), I have some additional guides and material that is very useful – happy to put it your way if you’d like me to. I would strongly encourage you to explore this. I have found the end product useful in evaluating future direction and options, but I’ve found the process of putting it together just as – if not more – useful. Go on, it can’t hurt!!

My Personal Life Statement

I also feel that it would be useful to share with you what I came up with. Probably not useful for you, but for me! A bit selfish, I know… I feel these words encapsulate much that I believe my life should be and become, and I want to share it so I don’t forget it and I can be reminded of it. So here goes:

“I want to know God deeply, have strong relationships with others, lead others authentically into real discipleship, teach truth powerfully and sensitively in a way that transforms hearts, minds and lives, and be wise in interpreting truth for present situations so that churches and individuals are able to live the gospel in ways that make sense today.”

Since I’ve packed a lot in, I also wrote some short notes to unpack the highlighted words:

Know God: I want to grow in ever-deepening, freeing and sacrificial relationship with Jesus, and to be a catalyst for others to do the same.

Strong relationships: I want to grow in good, honest and life-giving relationships with friends, family, those I am working alongside, and those I am serving.

Authentic leadership: I want to lead in my own way, having the integrity and boldness to do something new, not just copying others or settling for their traditions and structures, so that real discipleship can happen.

Transformational teaching: I want to be committed to wrestling with truth, and teaching in a way that challenges, encourages, empowers, envisions and actually changes people.

Interpretive wisdom: I want to interpret truth in ways that are relevant and life-giving now, driving the church and individuals to real and authentic worship, discipleship, community and mission.

So go on then, what’s yours going to be?!

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