Let’s say you want to landscape. You hire a landscape designer on the basis of her stellar reputation. At the initial design meeting you tell her you want your yard to be absolutely gorgeous, and leave her to her design work.
When the designer calls with the plans weeks later and unrolls the table-sized drawing you are stunned by what you see. It is absolutely gorgeous—and also absolutely unacceptable!
Instead of the “absolutely gorgeous,” easy-to-tend, native perennials you had imagined and assumed she understood, she designed a garden of such botanical complexity it would put London’s Kew Gardens to shame. To maintain this garden you’d need to keep a whole staff of master gardeners on retainer.
Clearly the meaning of “absolutely gorgeous” meant different things to you and the designer!
What Exactly Do We Mean?
In sermons preachers can use whole dictionaries-worth of words that sound as vague as “absolutely gorgeous” to listeners’ ears, and which preachers use with as many assumptions of shared meaning. I call these “church words.”
Now to be sure, I do not mean church words are to be entirely avoided. Indeed, they are a necessary, shared language that illuminate God’s actions in the church and world.
However, that language is only useful if all listeners understand its meaning, connotation, and context. If preachers do not share a definition, context, or picture for those church words, then some listeners may miss the message—or worse, may misunderstand completely.
Since we’re trying to bring everyone within the reach of Christ’s saving embrace, we have to decide if, when, and how to use church words. We have to ask ourselves perpetually:
Do I know with confidence my audience receives this word with the same meaning I intend?
We need to be as intentional in our use of church words as we are when we wordsmith our sermons’ opening or anecdotes, or that last sentence we want listeners to ponder as they leave the sanctuary.
If we use church words casually and assume “everyone knows” what we mean, then we risk conveying the Good News as “effectively” as our homeowner’s request for an “absolutely gorgeous” landscape.
Here are four ways to ensure your church words are truly meaningful rather than vague, abstract, or confusing. What would you add to this list?
1) “It’s So Much Bigger Than You Thought!” Reclaim the Word
Make a church word the focus of the sermon.
Reclaim the word by making it the center piece of the sermon’s message. Create shared meaning by sharing what the word means as is described in the Bible, original languages, history, and modern use. Illuminate the complexity, richness, and holy depths of words like “hospitality,” “justice,” or “community.”
For example, we often think of hospitality as a gracious offering to people we know, like throwing a dinner party for friends and family. However, a quick word study reveals this about hospitality in Middle Eastern Biblical cultures: “Hospitality is the process of ‘receiving’ outsiders and transforming them from strangers to guests…Hospitality is always about dealing with strangers” (Malina, Bruce, and John J. Pilch. Social Science Commentary on the Duetero-Pauline Letters. Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 2013, p. 257).
This historical context transforms our understanding of hospitality and gives us new ways to preach and practice this service.
The main idea of these types of sermons can be summarized as, “You thought you knew what this word means, but there’s so much more to it!”
2) The Walkabout: Bring Us Inside
Sometimes, we don’t need to use the church word at all. Rather than actually use the word “hospitality,” describe it.
Paint a picture of the time you were summoned to your next door neighbor’s house believing you’d be arguing yet again about the placement of the fence on your disputed property line. Help your listeners experience the respite you felt when instead, you were greeted warmly at the door and led to the dining room where the table was set with crisp linens and fresh flowers, the yeasty scent of freshly baked bread hinting at the meal to come.
This approach requires preachers to know in their senses what the word means. Visualize it. Feel, hear, taste the word. Sense its mood. Once you can picture it, bring us along. Define in sensory detail its meaning and significance.
This is the power of stories like The Prodigal Son, where we experience “grace.” Or The Good Samaritan, where we witness “compassion” and “the tearing down of cultural walls.” Abstract words and cliché phrases gain texture and life when illustrated in this way.
This approach to church words might be called a “walkabout” because the preacher describes a holy world and brings the listeners along to walkabout inside it.
3) “Imagine.” Let the Word Hang
Sometimes, we don’t want to define the word. We want people’s imaginations to soar.
There are times we may want to leave space for the Holy Spirit to fill in the possibilities. We don’t always want to define the mystery too closely lest we constrict the glory.
In this instance we might set the scene but leave its unfolding to the listeners.
For example, we might give biblical context to the word “hospitality” when Abraham and Sarah “entertain angels unawares.” But then, we might shift to the contentious fence issue with the neighbor. We’ve been summoned. We’re anxious, filled with trepidation, dreading the encounter. We ring the doorbell, our neighbor opens the door.
What would it feel like if instead of the argument we expected, our neighbor turned out to be gracious and kind? What would the conversation be like? If you were led to the dining room, what pleasant surprise might be waiting for you there? How might your neighbor’s hospitality affect the tone the next time you discuss the fence?
The approach to church words in these sermons might be summarized as, “Imagine for yourself….”
4) The “Need to Know” Basis: Enough Context to Avoid Assumptions
Finally, there’s the middle ground: provide enough definition and context for clarity without belaboring the point.
For example, “Travel through the desert was a hazardous, uncertain journey. One’s life lasted only as long as one’s ability to reach the next well—or household. With life separated from death by only the next ladle of water, mutual hospitality was a necessary virtue for desert dwellers like Abraham and Sarah. But not only was hospitality the minimum necessary to keep a traveler alive, it grew beyond mere survival; it blossomed into dignifying the guest with the best one had to offer.
This approach to church words might be called the “Need to Know” basis: what do your listeners need to know about this word to grasp the meaning of the Gospel?
No one sermon can unpack or provide context for every single “church word” a sermon contains. That’s the joy of preaching every Sunday; we always get another chance!
So pay attention and take note of the church talk you didn’t address in previous sermons so you can circle back to and expand on it in later on. And once you’ve taken time to illuminate the meaning of a church word, build on its shared meaning in future sermons.
Finally, we who preach use church words as commonly as a nurse rattles off medical language. We can easily forget what even constitutes a “church word.”
To that end, I’ve created a free list of 101 “Church Words to be Preached with Care.” ,
For ease of use, the words are sorted roughly into four categories, though many could be placed in multiple categories. Keep this list handy and add your own words to it, so you can be thoughtful and deliberate about shaping this holy and shared language of the Gospel.
Preaching Across the Divide
October 29th & November 5th
6:00-8:00 p.m. CST (online)
Our language feels as significant as ever in this charged era of political discourse. Once-benign words and phrases like “great” and “me too” are loaded with new meaning. With the midterms approaching in November, tensions among congregants are rising. And pastors face unique challenges in preaching the gospel past political walls and fearful defenses.
Join Leah Schade & Lisa Cressman for this two-night, online event offering practical insights to ensure your listeners can hear the Good News, whatever their political persuasion. Bring your questions and concerns and find the support you need to preach during the volatile weeks surrounding the November 6th election.
Mentorship Applications Now Open!
Deadline to Apply: October 31st
Applications are rolling in, and we’d love for you to be part of our 2019 cohort. Join this 6-month intensive mentorship to examine your current practices and mindsets, receive individualized feedback and support, and begin building skills, habits, and perspectives essential to a preaching foundation that is life-giving rather than draining.