What you say is important. I’m pretty sure that God designed it to be that way. The books of Genesis and John both speak about some very important words that God used. We see that Jesus is the Word of God. (John 1:1-5). God’s Words created the world in which we live. He spoke—and it came into existence out of nothing. God’s Words create life. Jesus used His Words to heal, to forgive, to preach, and to save. He is the Word and His words changed eternity. The Bible is God’s Word to us. And prophets in the Old Testament would receive and share a Word from the Lord. If God used words in such important aspects of the life He gave us, then we can be pretty sure that God places a lot of importance on words. What we say matters.
We’ve all had times when we fumbled for words, said the wrong thing, sounded tacky, or unintentionally hurt someone’s feelings. We make mistakes. And we make mistakes with our words. But it’s time for the Church, church leaders, and everyone who associates with the body of Christ, to strongly consider the importance of their words and the effect those words have on others around them. We need to be intentional with our words. It matters.
1. Person-first Wording.
As a church, if we are striving to be inclusive in our worship services and in our churches (and if we’re not, why aren’t we?), then we need to look at the words we use in reference to those in our ministry. Specifically, person-first wording should infiltrate all of our speech patterns. Person-first wording means we put the person ahead of the adjective we are using to describe them because the person is more important than their challenges, roles, or functions. So rather than calling people an autistic person, a foster kid, or a cancer patient, we need to turn those words around. Instead, if you must use specific descriptors, you would say you were meeting with a person who has autism, assisting a child who is in (foster) care, and visiting a person who has cancer. Always put the person first, because they are much more than their challenges. It may seem trivial to you, but it means a lot to choose to see the person over their pain or even their role in ministry.
2. Gender-neutral Wording.
This can be a pretty controversial topic, and as a woman in ministry, I have pretty strong opinions after spending several years in seminary researching women’s roles in society, family, and ministry. I believe in equality for men and women. I believe that Jesus redeemed women’s place in society. Whether you are in agreement with those statements or not, it is still worth the Church’s time and effort to examine the language used referring to men and women. This is not about changing the Bible. This is about changing what we as leaders or church members say and what we sing. If we believe in equality for men and women, we need to show it in our language, including important, long-standing traditions in the church. And that may mean adapting our songs and even our favorite hymns and liturgy. Will this stir up trouble? Perhaps. Is it important? Definitely. Jesus demonstrated hospitality and kindness to women in a time when this was seen as controversial and punishable. Sometimes we have to be willing to tackle the hard topics to include everyone that Jesus included.
A great example of this is the Christmas carol, “Good Christian Men Rejoice.” Obviously, this hymn isn’t putting women down, but it does exclude them. The United Methodist Hymnal has done a great job of adapting this hymn to include women by changing it to, “Good Christian Friends Rejoice.” The change does not affect the rhythm or pentameter of the hymn; it fits in quite smoothly and does not exclude half of the congregation. This minor change does not reflect a church’s leaning towards egalitarianism, complementarianism, or traditionalism, and it might seem trivial to someone who has grown up singing the original version. But if we want to show real love for women the way Jesus did, we need to remember that our words matter. It is not enough to say that it is understood that the word mankind means the same as the word humankind. We need to make the change and honor both genders that God created with all of our language.
3. Private and Public Words.
We need to take a good, hard look at the words we use both in front of the congregation and behind closed doors. Do our words reveal integrity, are they in line with Scripture, and do they speak love and life? Or have our office conversations sneakily degraded into gossip and hurtful sarcasm? Are our prayer requests just an excuse to talk about other people’s problems? Does our language exclude a person or a people? We need to look at both the content of our words and the syntax of our words. What are we saying to and about the children in our church? We may not realize that referring to “those kids” has a much more negative connotation than talking to “our church’s children.” Does our grammar show what we really mean? And would God be pleased with those words? What about ethnic groups? Speaking in stereotypes isn’t helpful. In fact, it just reveals our unnoticed racial biases, which are always wrong. Our words matter and they often, even if unintentionally, reveal the condition of our hearts.
The Bible says that out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks (Luke 6:45). Small changes in our vocabulary, minor changes in our songs, and adjustments to our speech patterns take a little bit of effort, but that effort will speak volumes about our love for the people that God has placed in our care. As we incorporate these changes in our speech, they will imprint on our hearts.
Is it on your heart to make sure that everyone feels welcome in your worship services? Does your congregation know that you truly value everyone? Ask God to point out to you ways in which your language might be hurtful rather than helpful. Be intentional as you sing, speak, and write, and make each word an effort to impart life, love, and hope into another person’s life. It matters.
Amanda is a toddler-chasing, coffee drinking, fashion boot-wearing, Fit-bit addicted, Jesus-loving, wife and mom to 6 small children. She spends her free time absorbed in fashion and tattoos, watching Pirates of the Caribbean, Googling, attempting clean eating, all while spreading autism awareness, encouraging adoption and foster care, championing the underdog, and of course, juicing. Amanda serves the local church as a licensed American Baptist pastor, worship leader, and free-lance writer. She holds a Master of Divinity from Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary, a Bachelor of Arts in Church Music from Eastern University, and a cosmetology license from Metro Beauty Academy. Her favorite places to be are the local zoo, the church piano bench, Facebook, and anywhere her family is. Catch up with Amanda at thebeautifulblog.com and twitter.com/beautifulmanda.