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Wor(l)ds that Matters

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Last summer, I invited a friend along to supper with several Christian acquaintances. Within half an hour, they were asking her if she was a Christian. When she replied “no,” they started questioning her about what they considered her lack of faith and encouraging her to start a spiritual journey. Later that night, she shared her discomfort with me: “It’s not that they weren’t nice, it’s just that I felt they believed my morals and principles had less value than theirs.”

What went wrong in that well-intentioned attempt to share our faith?

As a graduate student in communication at University of Montreal, I learn about how the words we use shape the way we see the world and ultimately affect the posture we take in sharing our faith with others. Here are a few things that help me understand these difficult encounters.

Labels build walls

Like any group, Mennonite Brethren have developed expressions for our particular evangelical Anabaptist culture. For instance, we commonly apply the labels “Christian” and “non-Christian” to people around us – colleagues, neighbours, friends. Little do we realize that naming these people Christian or non-Christian will have an impact on the way we perceive them and interact with them.

By categorizing people as inside or outside our group, we unconsciously create a barrier between us and those not in our group. Therefore, we’re likely to have a different attitude toward them.

In the context of mission, we often use the word “unreached” to designate people not of the Christian faith. We disseminate statistics about the number of unreached people in the world (e.g. more than one billion Muslims, nearly one billion Hindus, etc.), and show images of their tribes and traditions to demonstrate their need for our message.

But the term “unreached” can portray an “other” whose existence is reduced to “lack of Christian belief.” We may forget these people have a faith and culture of their own, a different way of understanding the world.

A missionary guest speaker was preaching the day someone brought a close friend (who is Hindu) to my church. The words the missionary chose were destructive. The simplistic and reductive way he depicted Hinduism so deeply hurt and insulted our friend that he swore never to set foot again in our church.

How can we change our language to propagate love instead of reinforcing mistrust? Using “share our faith” instead of “evangelize” is one example of a more respectful way of talking about the way God can use us to touch people’s hearts. The idea of “sharing” implies that we also listen to what other people have to say about their own faith and beliefs. It’s a sincere exchange in the context of a relationship.

Furthermore, humility in this mission God has given us means allowing ourselves to be vulnerable. This is precisely what we ask of others: willingness to be changed in the process, to learn about a new faith, a new culture, and even sometimes to change the way we understand our own faith and culture.

Worldview shaped by words

In a circular fashion, not only do the words we use shape how we see the world, but the way we see the world determines the words we use. It’s not enough to change our vocabulary; we need to ask ourselves a more fundamental question: How do we understand the work of God in the world, and our role in it? And, does my language reflect those beliefs?

For instance, do I still want to label all the people I meet as “Christians” or “non-Christians”? Only God knows where they are in their spiritual journey. Isn’t he the only one who sees the entire tapestry of his activity? We cannot fully understand how God operates; we may understand a part of his plan, as revealed to us through the Bible and the ministry of the Spirit, but can we truly say we see the whole portrait?

This acknowledgment leads me to a more humble attitude regarding God’s activity in the world, and by extension, my role in it. I try to have an attitude of sharing and listening as I use words that reflect humility.

Which message will your words convey? Will they say nobody is good enough for God (or for us)? Or will they say that Christianity is a relationship of love, and our main goal is not only to talk about God’s love, but to demonstrate it in a concrete and sound fashion, in part, by listening and sharing sincerely and openly?

–Joëlle Basque is a PhD student in communication at Université de Montréal, and a member of Église chrétienne de St-Laurent, Montréal, Québec. This article was inspired by conversations with 18 Canadians and Americans under 30 at a March 2010 young leader consultation at MB Biblical Seminary, Fresno, Cal

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Katharine March 7, 2012 - 16:07

I am so surprised and grateful to find this article in the Herald. It came right on time for me. Like the writer, I am also pursuing a PhD and am a fairly avid reader in theology, as well as literature and philosophy. As I grow, I have been experiencing an increasing discomfort over certain recurring language and stances of the church toward others. I have recently been wondering if there is space within this denomination for other ways of seeing; this article has encouraged me to hang in there. Thank you.

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Lorne March 19, 2012 - 16:08

The gospel is offensive to many, but we need not be. We are instructed, “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” However, this does not extend to failure to preach the whole counsel of God, including the fact that all other “gods” are no gods at all, a proclamation that will surely offend many Hindus no matter how nicely it is said. I agree that worldview shapes words and vice versa. But that does not mean that descriptors are necessarily “labels” and to be avoided. “Unreached” is a word typically used by evangelicals to describe individuals and people groups who have as yet had no effective access to the gospel of Jesus Christ, whereas “unsaved” may describe those as well as others who are “reached” but have not responded to the call of Jesus to “repent and believe” or have even consciously refused to.

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