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Navigating Language: The power and pitfalls of words

A single word or phrase carries so much meaning; it can shape an entire system of thinking and impact how the reader or listener applies it to their context. Take the word "fancy" as an example. In America, fancy means something elegant, like attending a ball. However, when we included the phrase "come to our fancy dress party" on our child's birthday invitations, our children dressed up as Iron Man and Elsa, while their guests arrived in suits and bow ties. Words carry different meanings in various cultures, and what’s important for us is that the words "pioneering" and "mission" carry significant baggage in our culture at the moment.

In the UK, the image often conjured up by the word "pioneer" is of American settlers - not a healthy image in the anti-colonial world we now live in. This puts us at a disadvantage before we even explain what pioneers do. When we explain that pioneering involves discerning God’s heart and joining in where the Spirit is at work in the world, people start to understand that the "doing to" aspect of pioneering has been removed. However, they may still struggle with the phrase "joining in with the Spirit." Why? Because mission has traditionally been something the Church owns and does to others. It has been seen as an action rather than a process of discernment and unfortunately carries persuasive and colonial baggage. The terms "mission" and "pioneering" have much unhelpful baggage and can mean very different things to non-churched people. And let’s be honest, although God has a missional heart, Jesus never used either term. Should we change the language we use?

Some theology colleges have changed the study of mission from "missiology" to "intercultural studies," which seems to recognize this issue. However, does that shift have a greater anthropological emphasis, taking the focus off God and placing it onto people? Or does it helpfully acknowledge the incarnational elements of Jesus’ life and ministry and our call to do the same? In 2019, the South West Baptist Association wrote their pioneer manifesto, in which they discussed why they chose the term "pioneer," acknowledging its difficulties and stating that they "toyed with explorer, innovator, adventurer, and imaginer." Helpfully, they wrote, "We need to ask better questions, listen, share stories, and use our words well to connect us with God, one another, and culture. This remains our shared task as a family - not learning ‘one’ language, but rather fostering a culture of language learning in an ever-changing landscape."

I like the words "adventurer" and "imaginer." As a pioneer, I think they capture much of what I do, but not all. Words are limiting, but they are one of the main ways we communicate, so we have to consider how our communication can embody love in each context as times change. I can’t help but think of the many Greek and Hebrew words that have been potentially lost in translation as we struggle to find the right word to replace them. For example, "ruach” and “pneuma” can mean wind, breath, or spirit, and which one is chosen can influence how we read a sentence of scripture and inform our whole doctrine of God. The words we use and the meanings behind them matter. (Jack Levison, Fresh Air, p. 13-25)

I use these terms all the time, and sometimes it’s helpful, and sometimes it’s not. Context and culture need to be considered. I’m not here to advocate for one term over another; I simply want to see people come closer to Jesus, and I want to use the words that help with that. Do you use the term "mission" or "pioneer"? In which contexts are these terms helpful, and in which are they not? What other words could strip away the baggage and communicate love clearly to our culture?

Jo Allen

Director: South West


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