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'Reaching the unreached' – and other phrases guaranteed to alienate your community
Friday, September 22, 2017, 12:26 (IST)
A newly-refurbished church near where I live has just had new signage done, in an effort to engage and draw in passers-by. They've got so much about it right: the colours aren't too garish, the type is clear; they've even managed to avoid the use of Comic Sans. The only real problem is the wording of the sign itself, which loudly proclaims the church's apparent mission statement. The slightly archaic church name is followed by six excruciatingly out-of-touch words which are presumably designed to entice and enthral, but actually do anything but: 'reaching the unreached of our community'.
I can imagine that in the church planning meeting that decided this wording, the sign sounded like a great idea. Among a group of church folk, entirely literate in the strangeness of Christian jargon, this was a fine description of what the congregation aims to do. The only problem is that when you view it from outside the church bubble, you realise that you are one of these 'unreached', which is not only a weird word but also makes you sound like a child in need. If you're 'unreached', you probably don't particularly like the idea of being 'reached', and certainly not by the sorts of people who announce that intention on a town-centre sign.
It's fun to laugh at the weirdness of the Christian language register, at least among ourselves. The problem comes when the worst examples of Christianese slip out into externally-facing use. Weird jargon can actually harm our mission to – yes, reach – people who are uninitiated to church, because it makes us seem out-of-touch, insular, and yes, quite odd. So here are a few examples of the sorts of words and phrases that we can sometimes unintentionally allow to escape the context of the great private joke that is Christian jargon... and some possible alternatives that might be more appropriate.
Yes, it's a biblical word, but it's also now inseparable in our culture from The Lord of the Rings. If you invite people to your church to enjoy some 'fellowship', they'll immediately imagine they're going to be spending their time hanging out with orcs and elves. Which might well be true in some churches, but it wasn't what you meant.
A better alternative: 'Make new friends'
This phrase appeared as an attempted improvement on 'non-Christian', but if anything it's worse. The idea that you can categorise all people into two groups – those who've seen the truth, and those who've just not got it yet – is unbearably smug. It's also theologically inelegant; the Bible is clear that not everyone will choose to follow Jesus, and this phrase implies that everyone will 'get it' eventually. Unless of course this is stealth universalism, which secretly believes everyone will end up being saved anyway... but given that it's usually the more conservative churches which use it, I imagine that's not it.
A better alternative: 'People'
Like 'unreached', 'lost' is the sort of label that no-one really wants to have applied to themselves. People might naturally come to the conclusion, particularly after discovering the love of Jesus, that they were previously a bit lost, but it's not something you'd welcome being said about you. Besides, 'The Lost' sounds like an 80s soft-rock band where the singer has an unruly blonde mullet. They almost certainly exist. They are almost certainly a Christian band.
A better alternative: 'People'
Again, this is one of those words which should never appear on externally-facing publicity. Yet I've lost count of the number of times I've seen an evangelistic service or event advertised as being for 'seekers', as if there's a group of people out there scouring local event listings for opportunities to satisfy their seeker-based cravings. What we're really getting at when we use this phrase is the idea that we've stripped out all the weirder churchy parts of our event, in order to make it relevant to normal people. And then we've brilliantly fallen at the final hurdle by labelling it 'seeker-friendly'. Alanis Morissette would be delighted.
A better alternative: 'Normal'
It might seem like I'm poking fun, but there's a serious point here. We work so hard to make our churches welcoming, inviting places, and then so often we fail to engage people because we get our marketing wrong. If we just thought a bit more objectively about how some of our go-to phrases sound to outsiders, then perhaps we'll stop alienating them with weird unnecessary jargon. Because when you strip away all the bizarre words, churches are very often full of kind, normal people (yes, and a few orcs), with whom the lost, unreached, not-yet-Christian seekers of our communities would surely enjoy fellowship. Or rather, among whom normal people would probably find they make new friends.