Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The language we use

Much of the discussion on membership over the past few days has been about the language we use. How right our final correspondent is to say that so much of what we do in church is opaque and therefore unwelcoming; people come and go without really knowing what is going on.

We used to joke that some old fashioned Christians used the 'language of Zion' to describe their faith and explain it to baffled outsiders. But I fear that we still use language people don't get and assume knowledge that people don't have. And we don't realise how this excludes people.

If I come to church and find the experience baffling or feel that there's an in-group who gets what's going on and the rest - almost like spectators watching from outside - I'll struggle to connect.

The same is true of talk about membership business meetings. I might have felt included in the services I have come to, even the home group I've attended. But the language we use about membership and business meetings still leaves me feeling like an outsider. The danger with this is that it raises a question about the reality of the welcome I've received: if I'm not really a part of this central, decision-making activity, am I really a part of anything else?

The problem here is the language we use to answer the question 'why should I join? What difference to my sense of belonging and my contribution to the church would becoming a member make?'

Often we talk in terms of mutual accountability. And frequently, this is the first time we use this kind of language. Perhaps a way of bridging the gap would be to talk about mutual support for and accountability to one another from the moment people arrive in church.

We have begun to talk about the need for everyone who comes to our church, who wants to follow Jesus, needs to be in a mentoring relationship where they get support and are held accountable for the way they live their life in the world.

If everyone in our churches was in such a relationship, maybe the language of membership would not appear so opaque. However, if this kind of mentoring were on offer, what would it do to our understanding of membership?


Wulf said...

I've just been in Spain for a few days, enjoying a short holiday and attempting to make my Spanish a bit better. That means I have been thinking a lot about language.

One reflection is that language is something we learn; I was pleased to find that I could understand enough to follow along the plot of a novel I bought.. and then brought back to earth when we watched an episode of the Spanish detective series we brought back on DVD!

If someone comes into the body of the church, there is some language they will have to learn in order to make the best of it, just like I have to learn Spanish if I want to make the best of Spain. Replacing the "language of Zion" with the "language of business" or any other vocabulary doesn't solve that problem but could create new ones by making it harder to talk about things that are important.

However, perhaps the best defense against exclusive language is to encourage those involved in the church to also be involved in plenty of other groupings. Rather than developing a linguistic ghetto, that will help keep the communications melting pot fresh as even long-standing members remain leaners of new words rather than guardians of an unwritten argot.

Matthew V said...

I'm enjoying reading about your thoughts on church membership. As a Christian Scientist I've found the barrier between members and non-members occasionally frustrating for very similar reasons.