What difference does a word make?

Copyright Robbert van der Steeg

In sixth grade I first learned to write essays.  My teacher, Mrs. Knight was very tough and so in an effort to impress her, I first began using the thesaurus.  Unfortunately, I didn’t really know that words were not interchangeable like I supposed and my first few essays were a shambles of misappropriated words.  For although many words are similar, they all have distinct meanings.

This is true in every part of our culture for words help us to make sense of our environment.  We quickly learn the difference between a path, a road and a highway.  While each one of these words may get you to where you are going, they are very different experiences.  Whether we realize it or not, the words we use say a lot about how we view the world around us, and how we expect to interact with it. This is especially true in the church.

For example, many growing churches have shied away from using the term visitor, instead preferring to use the word guest.  Churches that have done this do so intentionally with the understanding that visitors are often unwanted intruders, or at least unexpected arrivals.  Visitors are not planned for, but accommodated.  Guests on the other hand are expected.  Care is taken to welcome them and they are not a surprise to anyone.  They may or may not be introduced, but above all they will be honored and not treated as an outsider.  The very use of the term visitor implies that we do not expect the person to stay, for hotels do not have visitors, they have guests.  Guests are expected to stay.

I know this may seem like a little thing, a simple little word change, but word changes can reflect a whole cultural shift, a different way of thinking.  If I told you some guests were coming by, you might prepare differently than if I said we may get some visitors.

Another word change that can dramatically effect (or is it affect) your church culture is the change from volunteer to servant.  A volunteer is someone who freely gives of her time to help a cause or charity.  The volunteer service is a gift that is given.  The focus is on the one who gives: the volunteer.  However a servant is someone who serves others because something needs to be done.  There is a need that must be met.  The focus is on the need, not the servant.  It is a radical departure to take the actor out of the scene and focus the attention on the act itself.  On the need being met.

Jesus said, if any of you wish to be great, you will be servant of all.  He did not say you will volunteer your time, or you will give as you wish, but you will be a servant.  Now I know this is still a bit confusing because it sounds like it may be about achieving greatness, but I think it is more about redefining greatness.  The servant had always been considered the lowliest, but Jesus decided to redefine greatness, to change how the word was used.  Servant is no longer the lowest of all but the greatest of all.

What if we started asking for servants instead of volunteers?  What if we started asking people to live into their greatness by being a servant for Jesus Christ in the area of (fill in the blank).  We would not be looking for people to give some of their time out of the goodness of their heart, but asking people who love Jesus to put that love in action by serving.

In the United Methodist Church our membership vows state we will pledge to support the church by “our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness.”  We have not pledged to volunteer, we have pledged to serve.  If we took that vow seriously (and after all what is a vow if we don’t take it seriously) then the myth about 20% of the people doing 80% of the work would disappear.

The bottom line is this, the Church is not made up of volunteers who have chosen to belong to this group of people and do some good things, it is made up of people who have been called by Jesus to be a part of this fellowship of believers and to live lives of service: servants.  That’s what we have been called to be, so why not start living into that terminology.  We should never ask for volunteers, we should ask for servants, after all, that is what we are.  And that’s what makes the church great.

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