Our words matter. It matters that we speak about God’s call when the nominating committee gets to work. A phone call that asks if we feel called to serve on the Christian education committee feels different then someone begging us to sign up because the committee hardly ever meets and they really need new blood. It matters that we talk about giving generous gifts during stewardship season instead of hearing that the bills are piling up. Most people would rather give with joy than do their duty to contribute to mounting costs. It matters that we pastors call that one precious weekday a Sabbath day instead of a day off. That name helps people better understand why we aren’t in the office and it reshapes how we approach the day from our homes.
What we say shapes our reality. Since we are in the business of helping people form and mold their faith, our language has the power to build stronger faith muscles. The words we speak can help people realize that their values are truly grounded in faith in Christ. How we choose to speak about the church impacts who wants to be there, how they act inside the community and even what our church’s longevity may be. This is not to overstate the matter or to deny God’s providence in any of these situations. Using careful statements simply invites us into a different way of being in our congregations, which has the potential to significantly impact the ministries and relationships in our communities.
So with this in mind, I invite all of us to say this, not that:
“Let’s make a plan to act in the way God is guiding us in faith” instead of “We just need to have faith.”
Having faith is always our starting point. Too often though, we encourage each other to “have faith” as a way of doing nothing in the face of a difficult situation. If we just “have faith” that we’ll make the budget, then we might. But having faith without shifting our actions will not change the future trajectory of our finances, or increase our congregation’s generosity, or help us to be faithful stewards of God’s gifts. We should frequently and honestly encourage one another in faith. But God also calls us to discern the leading of the Holy Spirit and act accordingly. Our faith calls us onto a journey that moves us to act and plan and sometimes making changes — all while we rely on God for guidance and support.
“Children are full members of the body of Christ right now” instead of “Children are the future of the church.”
Hearing others say that they are only the future is a painful thing for youth and children. The young people I know believe they are very much a part of the church here and now. Their opinions matter for the decisions we make today and our ministries impact their lives in the current moment. Honoring this fact with our words is a way to live out the baptismal vows we made to them and to encourage their continued participation in the life of the congregation.
“I’m not sure we’ve met. I’m ______” instead of “Are you new here?”
Visiting churches can be a trying experience. Asking a visitor if they’re new puts them on the spot and sets up an insider/outsider dynamic from the beginning. Not to mention that well-meaning church folks have been known to accidentally insult members who’ve been in attendance for 2, 5 or even 10 years by asking if they’re new. Starting with an “I” statement takes the burden off a visitor (or potential long-time attender) and invites her to share who she is, offering as little or as much information as she likes.
“How can we engage and support our newer members?” instead of “Why do people join the church and then disappear?”
We’re always thrilled when new folks join the congregation and hope their faith will be fed as much as ours has been by the church community. It’s natural to wonder why this doesn’t happen for everyone or to feel discouraged by some folks’ infrequent attendance. A healthier approach is to take a look at ourselves to see what role we can play in nurturing newer members. Might we offer to connect them with a small group or Bible study and attend alongside them? Could we offer to watch their children so they can serve in a ministry they’re passionate about? Has something happened in their life that the church family could support them through? These activities can help new members engage, while also building real relationships that keep them connected to the church over time.
“We would love to grow our community with whoever feels called to faith among us” instead of “I wish we had more young families.”
The presence of children and families builds the spirit of a congregation and allows for intergenerational relationships. Yet some churches are particularly gifted for ministry with senior citizens or single adults or college students. Acknowledging our openness to all of God’s people is a sign of how we will welcome them once they enter our doors. Jesus showed us that we are often called to minister to the people we least expect.
“What ministries are we gifted for that God is calling us into?” instead of “Maybe we could start a program like that church down that road.”
We can’t help but hear about the amazing youth ministry at the megachurch across town or the compassionate homeless ministry at the little church next door. Seeing these flourishing ministries makes us think that perhaps we could do something similar with the congregation we serve. However, the unique mix of skills, talents and gifts in your congregation will always be different from mine. Each church has to identify its specific gifts and see how they fit the particular needs of the neighborhood. This gives our ministries the best grounding and opportunity to thrive. Other churches’ programs can serve as inspiration, but that can never replace our own faithful discernment.
EMMA NICKEL will begin serving as pastor/head of staff at First Presbyterian Church in Royal Oak, Michigan in September 2018. She is passionate about congregational ministry, trying new recipes and learning more about parenting. She lives just outside Detroit with her husband, Matt, and their two daughters.