Church jargon jettisoned for better communication

By Pat McCaughan
Posted Jul 3, 2014

[Episcopal News Service] The Rev. Scott Claassen of thads describes himself as “a Monday through Saturday follower of Jesus who worships on Sunday.”

He believes it conveys a clearer understanding of what his faith means to him than “Episcopalian” or even “Christian”.

“The main point is, it inverts our sense of discipleship from saying being a disciple means I go to church on Sunday,” Claassen, 35, told ENS recently. “Instead it says being a disciple means I practice this Jesus way throughout all of my life and I happen to get together with a bunch of other people on Sunday who do that, too.”

Call it semantics, but Claassen isn’t alone. Increasingly, individuals, congregations and even dioceses across the Episcopal Church are shifting language subtly – and not so subtly – to clarify identity and meaning and to make cultural and contextual connections.

Churches and congregations are becoming known as “communities of faith” and “centers of mission” and the word diocese has been dropped in favor of “The Episcopal Church in” places like Minnesota and Connecticut.

None of which is meant as “a strategy to get people to come to church, it’s just who we are at the core,” according to the Rev. Jimmy Bartz. He founded thads eight years ago as an “experimental community, or in church-speak, a mission station” of the Diocese of Los Angeles, he said.

“We’re about spreading love and making a difference wherever we are because that’s what Jesus was about and we’re committed to doing it together,” Bartz said. “It’s like that old country song, ‘be real baby, be real.’”

Becoming tradition ‘translators’
Helping the uninitiated navigate insider church-speak, complex liturgies and specific Episcopalianisms often involves becoming “translators, of sorts,” according to Bartz and others.

“It comes from this great gift that’s been afforded by learning the language of the Episcopal Church and its liturgy and tradition and wanting the culture to understand those gifts but having some sense that it’s too great of an expectation for me to demand that the culture learn the language that I’ve learned,” Bartz said.

The Rev. Becky Zartman, when reaching out to the largely millennial population in Washington, D.C.’s Dupont Circle neighborhood, talks “about networks, about groups of people in relationship with each other who love each other and who are trying to be faithful Christians together.

“That’s what I think of when I think of church. But some people think of it as a building or an institution or cathedral or something you only do on Sunday morning,” said Zartman, 29, assistant rector at St. Thomas, Dupont Circle, who blogs as the Vicar of H Street.

And when she blogs, “if I ever use a church word I define it or explain what it means. Better yet, I don’t use it. I might write an entire reflection on the Incarnation and never use the word. People either don’t know what it means or think they do and they don’t.”

And much of the time, “I’m starting in the negative,” she adds. “Because people have a negative connotation of the church or think that Christians are stupid. The problem is, church is such an umbrella term.

“In talking to millennials who have no positive experience with the institutional church, I’m still trying to figure out how do I explain this thing that we’re doing. I’m trying to be accessible, but to go deeper at the same time.”

St. Thomas’ vestry member Catherine Manhardt agreed.

“We have this really amazing church and liturgy and worship and common prayer and it’s central to who we are, once we get there,” she said. “But when you say I’m Episcopalian because the Eucharist is really important to me, that’s not going to resonate with people, and you want people to understand what you’re talking about.”

Rather than telling friends she serves on the vestry, “I say board of directors,” adds Manhardt, 25. Evangelism becomes “community engagement.

“For me, the most important part about church is the community … I don’t want to make who we are a barrier to the kind of people who could become part of our community.”

‘Communities of faith becoming centers of mission’
Through the New Visions Initiative (NVI) which partners thriving historically African American congregations with struggling ones, the Rev. Angela Ifill, the Episcopal Church’s missioner for black ministries, has witnessed language shifts re-energize congregations.

“Language plays a huge part in the way parishioners think of themselves,” Ifill said in a recent e-mail to ENS.

Her invitation to a New Visions group “to think of themselves as communities of faith becoming centers of mission, brought the question, ‘You mean we have to be doing something?’” she recalled. “It was a break-through in better understanding their purpose for being.”

Similarly, “praying communities” and “Episcopal presences” are the way Bishop David Rice describes “who we are, by talking about what we do … because the reality for me is that the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin is a praying community and within that are many praying communities,” he said.

“The primary intent is Luke 10, being sent out, hearing the stories of people, responding to needs, and building relationships, but not as a roundabout way of ensuring that we get people into church.”

Since his March 2014 election, “the typical question I ask everywhere is, ‘what does an Episcopal presence look like in this context? What do people say about the Episcopal Church where they are” including those who don’t attend church, he said.

Bishops Ian Douglas of Connecticut and Brian Prior of Minnesota each recognized a name change was in order when they realized the word “diocese” conveyed images of buildings and bishops rather than a sense of community, inclusion, and corporate identity.

A recent shift to “the Episcopal Church in Connecticut” actually reclaims tradition and common identity, Douglas said. “It was the original name of who we were when Samuel Seabury, the first bishop in the Episcopal Church, signed the Concordat with the three nonjuring bishops in the Episcopal Church of Scotland in 1784,” Douglas said.

The word “diocese” came along in the late 1830s and became associated with the bishop’s office and staff rather than “the united witness of the 168 parishes and worshiping communities participating in the mission of God together,” he said.

A move to a new, flexible shared workspace with an open floor plan accompanied the name change. It’s known as the Commons of the Episcopal Church in Connecticut, echoing the New England metaphor of the village green as a center of activity. Initial feedback has been extremely positive, Douglas said.

Similarly, “the Episcopal Church in Minnesota” conveys the reality “that our faith communities come in all sizes and shapes and contexts” including churches, senior housing, schools, campus ministries and other agencies who worship corporately, according to Bishop Brian Prior.

Yet, “we’re really clear in our language and in the big picture that the Episcopal Church in Minnesota (ECIM) is a diocese of The Episcopal Church; there’s never been a question about that.”

Language shifts prompted structural changes, he said. “I joke that there is no bishop’s staff here,” Prior says. “The only staff I have is the one I carry in procession.”

The diocese consists of “mission areas”, invited “to get clear about their identity and context, about what God’s up to in their neighborhood and to find a sustainable model for living into God’s mission in their context.”

As a result, Prior said. “More Minnesota Episcopalians know about the world’s needs and how to bring their gifts to meet the world’s needs to engage God’s mission” on local and individual levels, rather than trying “to get everybody into church.”

He hopes to revise parochial reports to measure, in addition to budgets and average Sunday attendance (ASA), levels of community impact.

For example, “there’s a faith community here with an ASA of 19 who feeds a hundred people every Friday. They have a huge impact on their community. That’s vibrancy. That’s really engaging in God’s mission, and that’s of more interest to us.”

‘No one-size-fits-all’
Language shifts notwithstanding, no one-size-fits-all; Episcopal identity still encompasses a wide spectrum, from evangelicals to Anglo-Catholics, say Prior and others.

Personally, says Bartz, “it drives me crazy that I hear from Episcopalians all the time, that ‘I can go anywhere in the country and get the same thing in church,’” he said.

“I think that’s a devastating indictment about how shallow our church has become, that we really don’t expect anything from people other than the execution of a particular liturgy in a particular way on Sunday morning. I understand it, but it drives me crazy.”

But for Broderick Greer, 24, a former Missionary Baptist and current Virginia Theological Seminary student, the liturgy’s poetic language was a way into the church. “I had run out of words in my personal prayer life and the church was able to say words it had been saying for centuries that I just couldn’t find for myself.”

Consistently asking the questions of faith – as individuals, as churches, as dioceses – is a given, and the challenge of inaccessible language can be overcome by the church “educating its people and those outside it,” he said.

“We say the Nicene Creed every week but we know that it doesn’t mean the same thing to us as to the people who wrote it. And so that’s why there is value in saying the same words that people have always said but knowing that those words are not static. They are living and offer life and new meaning for us and part of the task of the church is constantly interpreting what these words mean.”

About 40 Twitter followers responded to his recent tweet ‘what first drew you to the Episcopal Church?’ which he compiled into a Storify. For many, liturgy and language were the attractions.

“I thought to myself … why are we not tapping into this gift we have and sharing it with the world?” Greer said. “We think it’s so great and yet we don’t tell anyone about it and don’t tell anyone about the Christ we encounter in it.”

– The Rev. Pat McCaughan is a correspondent for the Episcopal News Service.


Comments (40)

  1. Dustin Henderson says:

    I’m certainly in the “Millennial Generation,” and I wouldn’t presume to speak for my whole generation, but what clap-trap. I live in a very secular east-coast city, and as it’s been said above, any Millennial I know could smell the embarrassed inauthenticity that this article presents from a mile away. Millennials don’t want easy; they want real, they want rooted. How about instead of co-opting the capitalist corporate-speak of phrases like “board of directors,” you might say, “. . . our vestry, which is what we call our board of lay-people here, is going to. . .” or “. . .our diocese, which is the name for the Church in a geographic area, is going to. . .” When you do that, BAM, the problem of unfamiliar words is solved. And for those so inclined, it’s a point of departure into whole swaths of our rich faith. As a young person, please have a little faith in us. We so want depth, connection, realness, and American society just spoon-feeds vapid crap. The church has a huge opportunity here if it will not waste it taking cues from that same society Millennials are trying to escape.

  2. What a wonderful discussion, revealing the diversity and richness of those in our tradition.

    Changing the name of an old fashioned place, such as replacing diocese with “the church in….”, or vestry with board of directors, or narthex with lobby, or Eucharist with communion, is hardly new. My natal diocese is only rarely spoken of as The Diocese of Olympia. More often, it’s the Episcopal Church in Western Washington.

    We’ve always had reformers and traditionalists in our communion. At our best, we welcome and support both, and everyone in between.

    I’m very glad to read of the emerging church movement, and of thads and street ministries of all kinds. I’m also very glad that I don’t have to lead them as I write a sermon and vest for mass in a sacristy that hasn’t been renamed.

  3. J.D. Godwin says:

    Just wondering how The Vicar of Dibley or Downton Abbey or any other of a host of anglophile-type mass media productions came to enjoy such enormous popularity without dumbing-down the language (jargon?) used. And wondering how changing one jargon for another jargon accomplishes much. I left a very healthy suburban Dallas parish after 30 years of ministry there, the last twelve as rector. Today it is a vibrant community (church) of 20, 30 and 40 somethings with hordes of excited and energized children and youth racing through its facilities every weekend (Sunday?) Its leadership is heavily weighted with neXtgeners who came to the parish in their from their higher education experiences looking for rootedness, tradition, open and welcoming hospitality and most of all (ask any of them…they’ll tell you) for strong, well-organized and carefully executed traditional Anglican liturgy and music. They had a choice of any number of area Episcopal or other denominations churches with entertainment-style music where none of the stately and supposedly off-putting traditional words of worship were used. They chose Transfiguration and grew with it. I’m glad for communities of worship that offer contemporary music and “accessible” language, and that they are growing. I’m also very glad for places like Transfiguration, Dallas (and shining stars like Epiphany and St. Paul’s, Seattle) that are thoroughly contemporary in their welcome and inclusion within the construct of historic Prayer Book worship and church music, and that they are growing. I am sorry when I read headlines like this one: “Church Jargon Jettisoned for Better Communication.” How short-sighted, pejorative and exclusionary.

  4. Stephen Alexander says:

    A Presbyterian (talk about a word that isn’t readily understandable!) friend of mine told me he went to an Episcopal church near his hotel while away on business. He said he really enjoyed it, but was quite puzzled by seeing a repetitive thing in the bulletin: BCP (and a number); I told him it meant Book of Common Prayer–a light bulb went on. We do need to be careful about our”jargon” for sure, but to replace it with what basically is another jargon doesn’t make sense to me. “The Episcopal Church in Connecticut” wouldn’t mean any more to many than “The Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut.” You have to know what “Episcopal Church” means. I agree with those who say it’s okay to use our jargon–as long as we are careful about it. It’s been around a long time.

  5. Rob MacSwain says:

    “‘It comes from this great gift that’s been afforded by learning the language of the Episcopal Church and its liturgy and tradition and wanting the culture to understand those gifts but having some sense that it’s too great of an expectation for me to demand that the culture learn the language that I’ve learned,’ Bartz said.” But that’s precisely what conversion is, at least in part: learning to speak a new language. In a very real sense, we are the language we speak, both individually and collectively. To NOT demand that the culture learn the language we speak is to allow ourselves to be converted and conformed to THAT culture. A vestry is not a board of directors! To “translate” some terms into what we think are their cultural equivalents is actually to denature them. As Mr. Greer says, what we in fact need is a richer vocabulary than what is provided by the dominant secular/corporate culture, and the Prayer Book provides it. Talk about wisdom from the mouth of seminarians!

  6. Steve Smith says:

    I am writing, rector of the Episcopal church in Munich. (Who thought there would be such a thing, but we have been here since 1896.) Here in Germany, people come to us, at last count we have members from 25 nations, because of our ancient liturgy and our openness in theology, philosophy and sociology. This kind of esoteric debate is irrelevant here. People want connection, support and love. And to the reverend who wrote that it drives him crazy that Episcopalians say, “I can go anywhere in the world and have the same liturgy,” perhaps he has not experienced the amazing worship I have around the Book of Common Prayer in places as wide-spread as Haiti, Malawi, India, Germany and Utah. The commonality is wonderful, not debilitating.

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