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Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Vocabulary Exchange

It's time to change the lingo of missions. (Including the word "missions.") Really. Hardly any of the words that we use to talk about cross-cultural ministry accurately describe the work of our people on the field. Many of our words actually work against us. Take, for example, the idea of "reaching" people. What does that mean? I know what we mean when we say it (at least I think I do...), but I've heard it used to describe many of very different activities. The term is too ambiguous to allow for any sort of meaningful communication.

When we say "missions," we make it sound like we're part of some military operation. Yeah, I'm aware of the war analogies and imagery in the Bible, but using militaristic words like "target," or "strategy" only go to reinforce the erroneous mentality that people are our enemies, and that we're here to either "hit them and run" or stay as an occupying force. Neither is good missiology.

Instead of the role of "Strategy Coordinator" what about "Contextualizer?" Or "Cultural Translator?" These sorts of terms better describe the real work of a missionary, and they leave out the militaristic/political word, "strategy."

"Church Planter" would be okay if we were talking about God.

"Evangelism." For the vast majority of believers today, it seems that the word "evangelism" has come to mean "preaching a summary of the Message." I think it's sad that we're not creative enough to come up with a word in our own language to describe the process by which the Good News culturally translated, shared and received. On our team, we use the term "Sharing Life" to refer to this process. We work to get involved in people's lives, knowing that as they get to know us, they will also get to know our Savior. We live in such a way as to support everything we say about Jesus so that (hopefully) it all makes some sense to them.

"Volunteers." Technically, this one is appropriate, since we use it to refer to people who come to work with (for) us at their own expense. I'd prefer the word "partner." A volunteer is someone who is doing you a favor. A partner is serving out of obedience, and therefore has equal stake in the work of the ministry. The term also helps narrow the difference between the professionals and the laity.

The biggest reason to change our missions vocabulary is that it isn't biblical. Why don't we call our "M's" "Disciplers?" or "Disciple-makers?" Maybe something like "Proclaimers" to describe the ongoing announcement of the kingdom. I like "Workers;" not as a substitution for "missionary," but as a good way to describe God's people doing what they were created for, and doing those things that cause the people around them to glorify the Lord.

A new vocabulary would help shape our general attitude toward the Commission.
I think it would also help us do a better job of communicating what we're doing on the field, and what God is doing among the people of the world.

What "missions" words would you change? What replacements would you suggest?


Bryan Riley said...

Great post. I am not going to add any ideas just yet because I haven't thought about it, but I wanted to say as someone who is somewhat new to many of the terms I have seen thrown about on the blogosphere, they aren't very helpful or enlightening. I also would add that disciple-makers is good for me and for other churched people, but i'm not sure disciple is a very commonly used term outside of the Christian community. I hope others will comment. And I will think about this.

GuyMuse said...

I like your list of terms. They are closer to what we are really about than the more commonly used terms.

We use a term in the work here that I don't hear much about elsewhere: servant-leaders--servants who lead others in making disciples.

When we start designating people as "pastor" there is a whole lot of baggage that accompanies that term implying something that most of our people are not. The descriptive term "servant-leader" has worked well for us.

Women can be servant-leaders as well as men. In this way we avoid a lot of the sticky issues involved with women pastors. We don't have women pastors, we have servant-leaders.

Bryan Riley said...

Servant leader is a good term because it crosses over into the American culture these days. Many consultants started using this in advising businesses how to be better people managers.

stepchild said...

Yeah, good point about disciple not being a word that is used in the mainstream. I guess I was looking for something that would be more biblical. Any suggestions for a possible subtitute? I know "mentor" and "apprentice" are thrown around a lot...

And thank you, Guy. "Servant leader" is a good one. I've been thinking about the roles within the church as well, and I think those are some of the words that seem to be problematic. "Minister of _______" for example. We seem to get caught up in titles and positions instead of roles and gifting. Maybe revising our vocabulary would help.

Bryan Riley said...

What would you put on your business card to replace the word missionary? That is what I've struggled with recently. If I wanted to give people a business card that represented what I did... what would it say? I was trying to explain this to someone I met yesterday and the best I could do was to tell them that just like Jesus told his followers to follow Him, He told them to go and tell others to do the same. So, in some ways I am simply a follower of Jesus. And, as a follower of Jesus I am compelled to tell others to do the same.

stepchild said...

We've set things up a little bit differently here. We all have platforms that we've developed through some of the projects that we have been working on. This has really helped when people ask, "So, what do you do?"

The problem with saying "I'm a follower of Jesus." Or "I'm a missionary" is that we get paid for it. So when we invite them to be followers of Jesus or missionaries to their communities, they think that in order to really do those things, they would need to be professionals too. Being paid to be a "missionary" is a huge hinderance to our work, and just isn't reproducible.

Paul Burleson said...


I just wanted to let you know you were prayed for this week. Keep up the good work of being yourself, it's healthy and needed by the rest of us as we keep following your journey.


cafeaddict said...

can we add the word "soul winner" to the list of words never to be used by the christian community again?

as far as disciple goes, i don't think it is necessarily bad to use a word that is mainly a "christian" or biblical term in today's definition. for the most part, i am for contextualizing words, terms, and concepts of the christian faith so that the world can understand us. however, i wonder sometimes if by keeping some of "our" words, we retain some of the mystery of our faith. by using words that only have meaning in connection with god and the church, do we advertise to the world that there is an other worldliness to our life, to our experience etc.? i am just thinking out loud. i just fear translating everything into secular terms and losing some of the majesty and mystery of our faith.

stepchild said...

I cannot thank you enough for remembering me in prayer.
Thank you for being part of my ministry.

That's really funny, I actually thought about "soul winner, but I figured that since some translations use the word (i.e.- "...that I might win more...") some people would disagree. You know me, I don't like to rock the boat.
You make a very good point about the mystery of certain words. There are more than a few ideas that are key to talking about our faith that the world hardly ever seems to consider. I like that we have words (and can always introduce new ones) that are new to the people we minister to. Using such words gives us an opportunity to teach and prevents our message from being misunderstood as, well, something of the culture.

I like having this discussion. It challenges me to think about the meanings of the words we use. I believe it is my job to culturally translate and contextualize. In order for me to do that, I've got to know what I'm talking about.

Matthew said...

I avoid using the word "sin", not because "sin" does not exist but because I find more and more people that have a foggy or warped understanding of what "sin" is. Ask a Christian college student what "sin" is and they will often begin to give you circular arguments about it being anything that God does not like, anything contrary to his will, anything that separeates you from God, etc... True yet still not a great grasp on the essance of sin. Ask a non-Christian and they´ll spout off a list of actions that they think you might consider to be "sin" eventhough they are not personally bothered by them; things like smoking, drinking, cussing, murder,etc...

Bryan Riley said...

I think the ministry of raising your own support and/or being a tentmaker adds an amazing dimension to many missions organizations work. But the IMB does amazing things for the Great Commission.

Watchman said...

Words morph and change with time, probably more so now with the speed of life so high. I can't say "screwed" around my father-in-law. He still thinks its a sexual term. Same with the word "suck." Words carry power, yet sometimes we need to take that power away. Hard to know what words to keep "sacred" and which ones to let change. Just like the aformentioned words, it probably depends on the community.