Your Church Language Is Getting In the Way

I often wonder what it’s like to walk into church for the very first time. Long term exposure to church culture can quickly cause the “objectivity muscle” to atrophy. We go about our business, speaking the native language, practicing the rituals, forgetting that, to the unbelieving public, there is a major cultural barrier between us and them. Church, as it turns out, is a massive culture shock! And the language we use is a major factor.

One of my favorite examples of breaking this language and cultural barrier comes from Acts 17. Paul has been dragged up to the aeropagus to satisfy the curiosity of the Athenians. I find his first few sentences very telling, and very intriguing. He explains that while he has been there he has been “perceiving” and “observing” various aspects of their religious habits, citing inscriptions on altars to the “unknown god.” He was speaking their language. He took time to listen to the culture and desired to answer the questions they were asking, even if they weren’t verbalizing them. And what did they do? They let him in and said “we will here you again about this.” And that was right after he made claims about the dead being resurrected! He listened, he spoke their language, he answered their questions, and as a result some became believers and joined him. Paul was a master at tearing down walls.

In his book Branding Faith, branding and media expert Phil Cooke observes that we have entered into a “post-Christian society.” What he means by this is that we have isolated ourselves from the language and values of the culture outside of the Church in the same way that (post-modern) society has isolated itself by simply not acknowledging the Church’s values as society once did. Our worlds simply can no longer communicate with each other.

Fixing the Problem

What will it take to fix this church language breakdown? How can we learn to speak the language of the people we’re trying to attract? Here are a few possible starting points.

  1. Stop talking and listen. Listen to what the culture is asking and begin to answer those questions, as Paul did in Athens. More and more you will pick up the language and learn how to communicate more effectively.
  2. When the time comes to open your mouth, speak in a dialect they can understand. The “Christianese” and inside buzzlingo won’t translate. Worry less about sound bytes and Tweetables, and more about loving the people you’re trying to reach.
  3. Respect what they have to say, even if you don’t agree. Communication, as it turns out, is a two-way street. It’s unreasonable to expect that those we reach out to will instantly have the same values and “speech habits” that we do. A little respect will go a long way as they grow to trust your words and actions.
  4. Compelle Intrare – compell them to come in. With so many demands on our attention, it amazes me that anything ever gets through. As a Christian, my attention is already on my relationship with Christ. But that is obviously not the case with the culture outside of the Church. We must prove to be worthy of their attention just to get them in the door and there are many methods of achieving that. We just have to learn to speak their language.

How have your communications efforts surmounted the church language barrier? Share your thoughts in the comments.



A Blog for All Seasons: Church Communications and More

Blogging and Me

I’ll be up front with everyone, I’ve grown to loathe the word “blog.” I’ve had so many good intentions turn to false starts and wasted hours over the past six or seven years since I’ve been on the blogging scene that the thought of giving it another shot took some real consideration.  My biggest battle with blogging (sorry for the alliteration) has always been my inability to find my platform as a writer. I struggled to be inspired by anything enough to write about it and I wasn’t engaged enough in anything in my life to write about it. Recently, that changed.

Over the past three months dramatic changes have taken place in my personal, professional, and spiritual life. Enough to provide me with the justification to try this again in hopes that I can gain some clarity from the past and apply it to the future, and maybe help some others as well. I’ve been serving in church and para-church ministry for eight of the past 13 years. I’ve learned a lot and I’d like to give something back to the pro-Christians out there serving in churches and faith-based ministries, non-profits, and Christians in the private sector.

My intention is to narrow the scope of topics to three areas: church communications, professional ministry, and Christianity in private industries. I’ll throw some design, critique, and exposé into mix for a little seasoning now and then as well. 

Church Communications

I recently took a position as the Director of Communications at my church. I’m finding it to be a remarkable fit for my unique and varied skill set. Our church is in a great pattern of growth and is at the tipping point for many of its central communications outlets. It is my job to bring those outlets up to the next level to meet the demands that the church’s growth has placed on us and to plot the course for the years ahead. I intend to document this journey here and to offer up discussion on strategy, philosophy, and more for your own application. I claim no particular expertise, only experience and willingness to learn. This is where the primary focus of the blog will be.

Professional Ministry

Warning: The church body is made entirely of humans! And so is the staff that gets paid to operate it. Professional ministry is not a walk in the park. I’d even venture to say that faith-based organizations struggle with an added dimension of missional complication simply because faith plays such an important role in their work life. I mean, how can you really “clock out” on the work of the church? I know there are stories out there just like mine, many are much worse, I’m sure! It is not my intention to rant or commiserate here, simply to gently expose the obstacles inherent in faith-based career work. From the leadership to the followship, there is work to be done, so let’s talk a little about our experience and where it is taking us.

Faith at Work

Did you catch that fancy double entendre? If you didn’t, please try again. I’ve always felt that the workplace is one of the most effective daily tests of our faith that we experience. Whether it is a public or private organization, hostile or friendly to faith, self-employment or corporate, the work we occupy ourselves with every day, and the people we encounter, offer us the most opportunities to prove and improve our faith. That’s what I mean by “faith at work.” It requires a faith at work.

A Blog for All Seasons

I have always been fascinated by the concept of journey; it’s something you’ll hear about from me quite a bit here. And God has proven faithful in every season of the journey he has me on, even when I have not. I’m at a point in my professional and personal life where I can speak to the past seasons of my life with transparency and grace. I have desired for so long to be able to put some thoughts down, to reflect, and to help others learn from my mistakes and my successes–it’s refreshing to be able to offer something back. As I look back on the road behind me, and wonder what’s ahead, I can only know for sure that God will remain faithful and that I must use what I have to help others, even if it doesn’t seem like much. So welcome to my journey.


Life Lessons from Chuck Swindoll

In early March 2011 I sat in a roomful of men and women who have dedicated their lives to various forms of broadcast ministry. We were all about to hear Dr. Chuck Swindoll deliver a message that he told us he had been “writing for over 50 years.” In a moment you’ll understand what he meant by that.

This was the first time I had ever heard him speak live. And to be honest, I’ve not spent much time listening to his sermons or radio addresses, or reading his books. But if there was one time I could have heard him speak, this was the one to be at.

Dr. Swindoll took the stage graciously, despite the inconvenience of going on 30 minutes late. Over the next hour or so he shared these 15 thoughts which he had carefully collected over the course of his life, marriage, and his years of service in ministry.

  • Tell people how you feel about them now. Not later… Later may never come.
  • Things that I’m not even aware of are being noticed and remembered. Little things mean so much to people.
  • Authenticity will keep you from a lot of trouble.
  • When things fit they flow. When they don’t fit, they have to be forced.
  • It doesn’t pay to talk anyone into, or out of, a big decision.
  • Days of maintenance are a lot more in number than days if magnitude.
  • Half of ministry is just showing up. Most of it is just plain hard work. It’s not “fantastic.”
  • Some people aren’t going to change, no matter what. Ruth Graham says of her husband, Billy Graham “It’s my job to love Billy, it’s God’s job to make him good.”
  • I seldom feel sorry for things I did not say.
  • Perception overshadows reality.
  • Time spent with my family is always worth it.
  • Grace is worth the risk.
  • Learn to stop saying “never” and “always.”
  • Thinking theologically pays off… Big time.
  • Some things are worth the sweat: Truth, admitting inadequacies, expressing gratitude, apologizing, and being generous.
  • You can’t beat having fun.

What a great list! When hearing Chuck Swindoll deliver them you could just tell they were intensely personal lessons he had learned through many trials and even more errors.

None of us are perfect, not even great men like Chuck Swindoll, but we can always strive to be better than we are. Don’t get caught up in yourself. Do better, be better, and choose better.

Versatility vs. One Big Thing

Recently I commented on a post by Phil Cooke titled “The Bread Plate Lady and the Power of Your “One Big Thing.” You can read his post and the resulting discussion here.

In the article, Phil makes some valid points in the defense of what he calls your “one big thing.” What he means by this is the thing (ability, talent, skill, passion) that you have completely mastered. He’s pushing for being remarkable in something so that you can “cut through the clutter and get noticed in the crowd of competition.”

I get it… it sounds nice. And I heartily agree with the concept that I we should all strive for excellence in everything we do. But what I think is missing from this idea of “one big thing” is versatility, flexibility, and adaptability.

I recently departed, or rather fled, from this idea. The belief that I needed to have “one big thing” suffocated me for years as I pressured myself into thinking that I had to be master of one skill. I wound up frustrated and empty handed in the end. When I finally embraced the fact that God made me to be diverse in my skill set, and useful in more than one area, I was inspired to chase after all of those different things. Now my biggest problem is deciding how to divide my time. I feel like I’m finally on my way to becoming what God wants me to be instead of trying to squeeze myself into this mold that the world has created for me.

I believe with full confidence that we can pursue many passions, and achieve excellence in everyone of them. I believe that we can lead dynamic multi-dimensional lives that keep us learning and growing all along the way. I also believe that God created some of us with the drive and focus to pursue one big thing, and he made others with the ability to span a wide ranging array of skills.

Today’s unstable job market will smile on the people who can demonstrate proficiency in varying areas. The guy that can develop your website AND edit your video AND do your accounting will probably be a more useful member of your team than the award-winning accountant that only does accounting. Diversity and agility in skills is a becoming more attractive to employers, especially small non-profits like religious ministries that require much work on a small budget with limited staff. If you’ve achieved that “one big thing” in your life, perhaps it’s time to add another one. It’s never too late, you’re not too old, and you’re probably not that busy. Never stop learning and developing whatever skills you have to be the best version of yourself.

Agree or disagree? Are you a “one big thing” or a “jack-of-all-trades” kind of person? What holds you back from jumping into a new skill?

Getting Out of My Way

I’m on the road to recovery. For years I was one of those chaps who would waste time, energy, and resources trying to find the solution to a problem on my own. I can’t recall how many wheels I’ve reinvented, but I know it’s up there. I resisted the sage advice of seasoned professionals. I had Google, what use would an expert be?

So what’s changed? Well for one thing, I’m getting over my phobia of asking questions. I’m learning to step outside of my comfort zone to engage people who know what they’re talking about instead of trying to do it all on my own. For so long I resisted the common sense approach of asking questions in search of what I thought was a better, purer way, but it turned out to be rooted in selfish and egotistic motives. If I had to ask someone else the question, then they would get the credit. Naturally I assumed that if I could discover the answer on my own, I would get the credit. Sound logic, right?

This is corrosive behavior. Now I have a difficult time being open to collaborative opportunities, I’m stubborn, and I tend to think that if I didn’t come up with an idea myself, well, then it’s probably not worth pursuing. I struggle to be enthusiastic about other people’s ideas and I plateau quickly in my cycles of learning because I’m unable to reach that next level that requires me to ask the questions. My lack of openness to learning from others on a personal level has left me devoid of some very necessary characteristics for ministry work. In short…I’m a bad team player. But it gets even better…

I love playing guitar and writing songs. I’ve been doing it for over a decade and it’s one of the few things I can say I’m passionate about. In fact, I taught myself how to play guitar by writing songs. I was awful for a while, but I gradually got better. But ten years after I picked up my first guitar I’ve plateaued. Why? I should be pretty good by now, right? Well, because in all of my “teaching myself” I wasn’t learning from anyone else.  I wrote all of my own songs and learned very few of the songs that had shaped my musical tastes in the first place — songs that would have challenged and improved my skill as a guitarist. Instead, I was an island unto myself. I developed a one-dimensional approach to my songwriting and guitar playing because I wasn’t seeking out those influences that would have made me better. For this reason, I haven’t improved much in my playing or writing skill for many years. And I know I’ve developed a bunch of bad habits that are going to be that much harder to unlearn when I finally buckle down and hire a guitar teacher to get me on the right track.

“Great. You’ve pinpointed it. Step two is washing it off.” – Tommy Boy (1995)

Let’s just cut to the quick here. There’s no shortcut to success in this area. We either are, or we aren’t, asking questions, asking for help, and learning from others. We have successes and failures along the way, but if we are purposeful about the change I can guarantee we’ll see some major improvements in our relationships, learning ability, and lots of other areas. The hardest part is getting out of your own way.

Like I said, I’m recovering. I don’t have it all figured out yet, but I’ve got a decent start. What about you… is this something you struggle with or are you naturally a question asker?