Foggy Words that can Sidetrack the Mission

In order for us to engage people in outreach we need to do life with them and be intentional about loving on them.

You may have actually heard that statement come off some pastor’s lips in a sermon. But think about it, what does it actually mean? You filled in all kinds of meaning behind those phrases. Your meaning may have been absolutely biblical, or perhaps it was way off base. Often, our goal in crafting this language for our mission is noble. We want to find a way to articulate aspects of what it is we are all called to do. Unfortunately, because so many of these words are vague, they get used in all kinds of ways.

“In recent years the foggy word ‘work’ has become popular. This least common denominator includes all kinds of activities. Preaching, teaching, healing, theological training, broadcasting, building, and chicken raising-all are work. Ardent church planters like the Southern Baptists, addicted to the idiom, even when they begin a church in some town in Mexico are likely to say, “We have opened a work there.” Wherever used, the word hides what is being done.”

That is an excerpt from a book written in, wait for it… 1970.

In fact, the author goes on to say, “Similarly the words friendly interest, response, outreach, encounter, and the like are so vague and cover so many activities that they tell little about the increase of congregations.”

The author was Donald McGavran*, and he hit the nail on the head. In the church and missions, we love using foggy words to describe our “work.” We have been doing it for at least 47 years now, and I bet we have been doing it a lot longer. McGavran’s warning about our vocabulary is as salient today as it was back then. It is easy for us to cloud our own understanding of our mission when we apply vague terms uncritically and imprecisely.

The Christian Dictionary

Christians are a subculture just like any other group, and we create a lingo, a whole dictionary of words that we use to communicate with each other. We have our own vocabulary. There is nothing wrong with this in itself. After all, much of this insider language comes straight from the pages of Scripture. We talk of grace and the gospel and Jesus as our savior. We are committed to the “one another commands” and the way we use the term community sounds funny to people who are not Christians. All of these terms have meaning specific to biblical Christianity, and when we use them with one another they mean something. This is not bad in itself.

However, often times these words conceal as much as they reveal. That is where we get into problems, and that is what McGavran is critiquing when he speaks of “foggy words.” Christians are real good at coining terms (or should I say real bad?). We do outreach, we engage people, we try to reach nations, we love on people, we do life with each other, we do things with intentionality, and the list goes on and on. It sounds very missional, very relational, very relevant (all foggy words), but really it is just speaking Christianese.

No one wants to say they are not engaging people, so whatever they are doing is labeled as engaging. Nobody wants to be part of a group that is not doing life together, but because that could really mean anything, everyone is doing it in some form. These vague terms come to mean all kinds of things, and soon they mean nothing at all. A friend of mine calls this verbicide, when a word is used so often for so many things that it stops meaning anything. And we are guilty of verbicide when it comes to a great number of phrases used in ministry.

Consider this: what is the difference between two unbelievers engaging each other in conversation and a Christian engaging a lost person in mission? There should be a difference, and it should probably have something to do with speaking the gospel. For engaging to be a missions term at all, there must be actual differences between what we are describing and any old coffee shop conversation. Of course, this does not mean that every conversation with a lost person needs to include the Romans Road or the Four Spiritual Laws. I am not saying a conversation is not ministry unless you hand someone a paper tract. I am; however, saying it is easy for us to just chat with people and call it missional if we hide behind foggy words.

The term engagement became popular in church vocabulary because of its use to designate people groups overseas as having a Christian missionary presence with an engagement strategy in place for planting churches. But it sounds so missional for churches to use it about neighborhoods or population segments in their own city. And that is a great way to use it, if it maintains its meaning.  Too often it quickly sheds the meaning about church planting strategies and becomes any manner of things. If left unchecked, it stops being missions and just becomes interaction.

Why do we do this?

McGavran lists a number of reasons we do this to ourselves. He blames promotional and mobilization strategies, saying we have a need to convince people our organization (or church) is doing so much they need to be a part of the action. In order to do this, we trend toward using vague phrases that allow us to count any kind of activity as missional success. We use words like work, instead of churches, so that any kind of interaction with people counts toward how many “works” we have going on. We use “engage” instead of gospel presentation or bible study, so that we can be engaging people all over, even though we have few people actually sharing the gospel or starting Bible studies with lost people.

Additionally, I think we can do it to deceive ourselves on occasion. McGavran discusses this too. When it would be easy to get discouraged in our missions, we can couch in foggy words that focus on activity of any kind. It proves we are busy, but it hides that we may be busy doing the wrong things. If I am convicted about my service to Christ, there are two ways I can alleviate that: I can change my behavior or I can justify my behavior. Again, some of the motivation here is noble, because we want to excite a congregation into action or convince people they do need to go be a missionary somewhere. And most often, this is not done consciously. I do not think most churches intentionally hide behind language. It is reflexive, but it does happen.

So what is the solution?

We need to spot these words and call them what they are, foggy words. Does every instance of the word engage have a vague meaning? I hope not. I use it all the time in my own writing. However, you need to get into the habit of asking yourself what a term or phrase actually means. When reading a blog post or a book, or listening to a sermon, develop a discipline of looking for these foggy words and trying to discern how the author or speaker is using them. When speaking to others Christians in conversation, in small group, or in another interpersonal setting, find out what they mean when they use these terms. And be sure to watch your own usage. Know what you mean when you say a foggy word, and be prepared to explain.

Finally, for those of us who write, speak, and teach on a broader level, there is an extra burden. Public communication requires careful usage of such words. Sometimes, it is tempting to be vague in our language. People tend to agree with vague, because they can supply meaning. Furthermore, some of the ideas we express in sermons and articles are necessarily broad. However, we need to be careful that our words are not unnecessarily broad.

Practicing discernment when we hear foggy words will sharpen us. It will cause us to think through important issues, like the actual nature of mission. The specific nature of ministry, what it really means to engage people, and just exactly how we can be intentional about it.

Over the next few weeks, I am going to write a few articles on specific foggy words and phrases that are popular right now and provide a couple of suggestions about how we can clarify what it is we are asking people to do.

 

 

*Donald A. McGavran. Understanding Church Growth. 3rd ed. Revised and edited by C. Peter Wagner. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990.

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