The Ministry of Semantics

I’m a firm believer that language is one of the most important tools of the pastoral trade. However, it can also be tempting to abuse language.  We have to approach it carefully.

Semantic AlarmLately, I’ve noticed that I find myself retyping one particular statement in a different way. Often, I’ll find myself talking about “my congregations” or “my church.” Everytime I do this, for whatever reason, there is a little alarm that goes off in the back of my head, “Whose congregation? Whose Church?” So…backspace, backspace, backspace, I retype “the congregations I serve” or “the church I serve.” Because first and foremost both churches I’m appointed to are God’s churches. They do not belong to me. I don’t own them. I’m called to serve them.

Semantics matter. Can we even say that language shapes our thinking? Maybe so. So, the next time you think of “your church,” maybe you’ll hear that same alarm that’s been hardwired in my brain.

7 thoughts on “The Ministry of Semantics

  1. I guess that’s why I’ve felt strange for years about our conference’s monthly mailing… now emailing… entitled, “MyChurch.”

  2. Sure, it’s a good idea. But it’s hard to keep straight in your head who can speak theologyspeak and who can’t, and how the meanings of terms differs greatly.

    A layman at my church recently asked me why I wanted to be a minister. I expressed that I didn’t want to, so much as was called. This really confused him because he was thinking about being called into the ordained ministry as being something like pursuing a chosen career track, and that I was suddenly expressing a desire not to be a minister, contrary to everything that I was doing at the time. It took some significant backpedalling to extricate myself from the misunderstanding. Likewise, our delicate permutations of “my church” and “the church” and “Christ’s church” may be lost on the laity and sow confusion instead of precise theological clarity.

  3. Hi John, thanks for stopping by and thanks for your comment. I hear your concern and appreciate your willingness to dissent (almost as much as I appreciate the others’ agreement!). 🙂

    In my life, this a personal discipline more than it is a rule that I’d impose on anyone else. In fact, in certain contexts I will refer to “my church(es).” If this were just speech and not something I try to practice in the way I approach ministry, then it would just be “theologyspeak.”

    Also, I think there might be a difference between the “my/God’s church” distinction and the “calling/deciding” distinction you mention. What do you think?

  4. I feel even worse about saying “the church I serve.” No, it’s “the congregation I serve.” The Church is so much bigger, and I have trouble in regular speech making a difference between lower-case and capital letters.

    I also hate it when people call me “the minister.” I’m the pastor! It’s a kind of minister, but we’re all ministers in Christ’s Church!

    But perhaps that’s just the narrow-minded fundamentalist in me that lurks behind my liberal DOC exterior.

  5. I’ve found that yelling when you are saying Church and whispering and averting your eyes when saying church makes that distinction clear. 😉

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