I haven’t figured out if I love words because I am a writer or if I am a writer because I love words but I have always been fascinated by words and their meanings and how they affect us. Our words both reveal and shape our reality. The words we use to talk about something are therefore much more important than we realize.
Look at how we talk about the church, for example. Probably the most common way of describing the gathering of believers that we are a part of is to say, “my church”. This can be a very simple statement used to describe our relationship to that group of people–we belong so we can say “my”. But the more we look at it, the more convoluted that description becomes. The problems come because the word “my” can indicate belonging but more often it indicates possession–and at some level, when we say “my church”, we are planting seeds in our minds that suggest that the church belongs to us and exists to benefit us.
And lest you think these are a sign of how desperate I am to have something to write about at times, think for a bit. A lot of the time, we do treat the church as if it exists for us personally. We want services when it is convenient for us. We want the music that we want. We want the sermon to be the length that we want and about the topic that we want. And even if I are the only person in the congregation who wants a 3 minute sermon on Jezebel accompanied by 439 repetitions of the chorus of “Just as I am”, I want it so it should happen–because in the end, it is my church.
Many years ago, I remember a class discussion about making decisions in the church–I think I was a student for this discussion so that was a long time ago. The gist of the discussion was whether the church should decide things by a simple majority or if we should use a higher number, like two thirds or something. The professor suggested that if we were serious about our faith, we should use consensus–nothing should happen until everyone was in agreement.
At the time, I really liked that idea and have consistently tried to use that in the church business. But there is a problem–using consensus means that in the end, one person can decide the business of the church. And there is often one person who is quite willing to decide how the church will be, simply because they believe “This is my church”.
Having one person in the congregation who see the church as “mine” is a problem, but one that can generally be worked around. Unfortunately, it is very rare for there to be only one person who uses the first person possessive when talking about the church. At worst, every person who is part of congregation is using “my” when they talk about the church.
And the use of “my” and its related words means that all of us think we have the right to determine the direction and shape of the church. I don’t like modern choruses and so my church shouldn’t use them. I like topical sermons and so my church should use them. I don’t like noisy kids in worship and so my church should deal with that. I don’t like the minister and so my church should get a different one. This is my vision and my church should adopt it.
The list goes on and on–and far from being a theoretical, this is a possibility type list, this is a real list of real issues that have caused real messes in real congregations. Whether we want to admit it or not, the underlying problem comes about because I and many others describe the church in the same way I describe my car, my keys, my favourite shirt–I say “my” and “mine”, which at some level that I may not even fully recognize, allows me to assume possession of the church–if it is mine, it should do and be what I want.
Underneath many church messes is the underlying assumption that it is my church. Maybe we need a better way of referring to the church that we are a part of–and that will be the subject of the next post.
May the peace of God be with you.