The Grammar of Faith

Have you stopped to consider how your use of language is creating and shaping a culture for the church you lead (or belong to as a member)? “This week we will meet here at the church and then divide up to prayer walk our city.” “That was a moving time of worship, now let’s take up the offering, and then we will hear God’s word proclaimed.” “Did you make it to small group (or community group or missional community, etc) last night?” As commonplace as these comments are in our conversations, I wonder how much confusion has been created among God’s people when we say things that we really don’t mean and/or believe. While language isn’t the only culprit in this confusion, I do believe it is one that is often missed and easy to address.

As one entrusted to faithfully pastor the saints of Covenant Life Church, I am growing in my understanding of the power of the spoken word. “Power of the spoken word”—obviously, this informs much about the Christian faith, for example: our belief on creation-Then God said…-Genesis 1.3; our proclamation of the gospel to the unregenerate—so faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ- Romans 10.17. It is also informs the preaching the gospel to the saints—Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you were saved… – 1 Cor. 15.1-2. We all believe in the power of the word, evidenced in the time, energy, & attention given to sermon preparation and equipping for evangelism. What is often overlooked when considering the power of the spoken word is what we communicate to others by our daily vernacular when we are not preaching a sermon or sharing the gospel with an unbeliever.

What seems to happen in the most subtle of moments & ways within many of our corporate gatherings, communication/announcements to the congregation, and informal conversations with friends & family throughout the week is that we underestimate the power of the spoken word in how we articulate what we truly mean. For example, take the phrases used at the beginning of this article. We surely would never teach that the New Testament church is a building, but what do we convey when our daily vernacular tends to suggest this very thing? We would never teach that giving, praying, listening, & responding to the preached word is not worship, yet what are we suggesting when our language (both spoken & printed in bulletins) say something different? We’re not really after a mere gathering of people on a weekly basis, but a people whose lives are intertwined & connected at a life-on-life discipleship level.

I’m not sure who I heard say this, but the truth in it is profound: You are always teaching something…both actively & passively.  While many church leaders are intent on working hard at what they actively teach, what cannot be neglected is what we are passively teaching God’s people along the way.

Some may say, “Justin, you really seem to be making a mountain out of a molehill, stop being the grammar police!” That has crossed my mind (not to mention the minds of my wife, family, elders, missional community, church family at large, & who knows who else), but at the end of the day when people think that church = building, singing = worship, gospel = what we keep on the shelf until we talk to lost people, or community = 1 hour group study (we could go on & on)…it has become less an issue about grammar policing and more an issue of helping establish a biblically informed worldview about the Christian faith & our lives.

While there are so many ways we can go about building up Christ’s church, one of the simplest and most reinforceable ways is for us as church leaders to be precise in our language: meaning what we say & saying what we mean.

In our context we’ve worked hard at establishing this kind of “grammar of faith.” A grammar of faith means that we articulate in our speech what we believe in our doctrine.

A few examples include:

–We are intentional to remind people throughout our service that when we sing we are worshipping through song, when we give we are worshipping through giving, that when the sermon is preached we are worshipping through the preaching, listening, & responding to the Word, etc. Not only is this spoken throughout our service, but this grammar of faith is evident in our publications, specifically our weekly bulletins.

–We also are diligent to refer to the building we meet in as exactly that-a building or a gathering place for our church. Rather than hearing a Sunday morning greeting of “Welcome…glad you came to church today,” we opt for “Welcome to the gathering of Covenant Life Church today…we are thankful that you are here.”

–We are working to show that our weekly missional community gatherings are just that, gatherings of those in our MC. Because it is our hope that our MCs would be a primary context where life-on-life discipleship is happening, we work against that by referring to, and thus reducing our, MCs as a solitary gathering for a few hours.

Friends, the words that you speak are helping create a culture among the people you lead. For the glory of our great God & fidelity to His ways, may we be wise and intentional to say what we mean and mean what we say.

Justin Perry is pastor of Covenant Life Church in Tampa, FL and a member of B21. You can follow him on twitter @jperry_30.

What do you all think? Making a mountain out of a molehill? Or what are some other areas of our church vernacular that may communicate to our people something contrary to what we believe? Feel free to use the comment section below.