- “We welcome you to join us for worship at 10”
- “Join us for coffee after the service”
- “Please join our Facebook page/newsletter list”
- “Our ministry is supported by your gifts”
Such language is meant to sound invitational and inclusive, but in reality it functions as a boundary marker: “us” on one side of the boundary, and “you” on the other. Whenever we invite you to do something with or for us, the boundary is reinforced.
Us and Them
The language itself betrays a form of “us and them” thinking that seems firmly rooted in the church and colours our approach to evangelism.
This language betrays the truth that our focus remains on us, church insiders, and our desire to grow our congregational membership and sustain our congregational budget so that we can continue with our congregational mission.
It’s language born of a somewhat desperate desire to preserve the church in the face of decline and to preserve a certain form of post-World War II church culture that seems on the verge of extinction.
The invitation is for you to cross the boundary and join us. While we think we are being very generous and hospitable and open, the folks who are not us—those we are trying to reach—are able to sniff out the “us and them” underpinnings of our invitation.
They can detect that the invitation is not really centered on them and their needs, but on us and our needs. I once heard this described as vampire evangelism: “fresh blood!”
In all seriousness though, I think our language says more than we might intend. I believe that it does convey a set of expectations: that when you join us, you do so on our terms.
In reality the invitation is about “what you can do for us” and not about what we can do for you, or even better, what we might be able to do together, you and us.
How different it could be if instead of inviting others to cross a boundary and join us and become like us, we chose to extend the boundary or even to dismantle the boundary so that others could be and feel included right where they are, without the need to cross our threshold.
Changing our language
It starts with language. It starts with stopping the use of “us” and “our” and “we” and “you” language. Some examples:
- “Come and worship Sunday at 10”
- “Community coffee time after the service”
- “Let’s connect on Facebook/newsletter”
- “Together we can make a difference—here’s how”
I am convinced that changing our language will begin to transform our church culture. I think it will start to get us out of the habit of thinking in terms of insiders and long-tenured members versus newcomers, visitors, and church-shoppers, the various categories of us and them.
I dream of a day when we stop seeing church as a membership club in which the long-tenured enjoy enormous privilege, while newcomers and visitors are eyed with a mixture of suspicion and curiosity, or sized up as potential contributors.
I dream of a day when we understand that the worshipping community is not made up of insiders and more peripheral participants in various ranks, but is instead simply the collection of those gathered by Christ at that place and time, and that there ought to be no distinction made between them—whether they are there for the first time or for the thousand-and-first time.
I dream of a day when we understand that church is a living, changing, fluid body made up of all those called into service by Christ.
It starts with our words of invitation.
Rev. Dr. Jeff Seaton is a United Church of Canada minister, church leadership consultant, and author of Who’s Minding the Story? (Wipf & Stock, 2018).