Members at The Well in Jacksonville, Fl., create a prayer circle. Pastor Susan Rogers said she tries to avoid spiritual slang because it can be dismissive of God. (Photo by Rick Snell)
Members at The Well in Jacksonville, Fl., create a prayer circle. Pastor Susan Rogers said she tries to avoid spiritual slang because it can be dismissive of God. (Photo by Rick Snell)

'Churchy' lingo turning off Millennials

Accepted phrases like "everything happens for a reason" and "God's in charge" can alienate young people and others who are unfamiliar with the deeper truths behind such jargon, Baptist ministers say. 

By Jeff Brumley

If there were an 11th commandment, for Millennials it might be “thou shalt ban pious slogans from thy midst.”

In fact, faith-based lingo — like “everything happens for a reason” and “God is in control” — is coming under increased scrutiny as younger Americans cite it as a major turn-off to congregational life.

Baptist minister Michael Gregg saw that clearly in a recent Washington Post blog titled “5 churchy phrases that are scaring off millennials,” which he reposted on Facebook.

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He said the blog reminded him that outsiders looking and listening in on the church may be confused or offended by deep spiritual concepts reduced to pithy sayings.

“When you hear ‘God is in control’ you have to think, what about all the bad things that happen?” said Gregg, the minister of educational life at Northside Drive Baptist Church in Atlanta. “Those are the kinds of things Millennials are asking.”

Addie Zierman, the writer of the Nov. 7 Washington Post blog, is a member of that generation. She grew up in an evangelical church and abandoned organized Christianity before joining a community church in Minnesota.

Zierman reminded readers that young people are leaving or avoiding church, many times, because of the odd things they hear in sanctuaries and elsewhere from Christians. Much of it creates an insiders-versus-outsiders atmosphere.

“Here is what I can tell you about millennials,” Zierman wrote. “We grew up on easy answers, catchphrases and cliché, and if we’ve learned anything, it’s that things are almost always more complicated than that.”

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Zierman told ABPnews that jargon is unavoidable whenever human beings form into groups, religious or otherwise. “The problem for me is that when these things become cliché, especially in religious terminology, they carry a lot of baggage with them,” she said.

That baggage may feel judgmental to visitors, especially when terms like “believer,” “unbeliever” and “backslider” are used.

“And then there’s the way clichés terminate conversations — like ‘the Bible clearly says,’” Zierman said. “That’s a final answer that leaves no room for doubt, no room for questions and no room for sharing your feelings.”

When it’s not ‘a God thing’

And that’s why Susan Rogers tries to make little room for churchy jargon at The Well at Springfield, a Cooperative Baptist missional church plant in Jacksonville, Fla.

Rogers said the subject has come up during church dinners and discussion meetings. Participants have noted that such language can come across as simplistic.

“I feel they’re dismissive of the mystery of God, dismissive of the complexity of suffering and they don’t do anything to open up discussion,” Rogers said.

 SusanRogersA couple of phrases Rogers said she dislikes the most are “everything happens for a reason” and “it’s a God thing.”

The latter is used when something amazing or positive happens, Rogers said. “But it’s never a God thing when everything falls apart and you have to seek encouragement and love from your community.”

The logic behind that cliché, she added, would mean that God is not currently present in the Philippines, where a typhoon last week killed an estimated 10,000 and destroyed several villages and towns. “The problem is that God is just as present — and even more so — in our brokenness,” she said.

These issues are really nothing new, said Tony Lankford, pastor of Park Avenue Baptist Church in Atlanta.

“We had this debate in seminary,” he said. “Some say don’t use language you wouldn’t understand at Lowe’s.”

Pastors can help in this area by regularly reminding members about the power their words can have. Congregations also must be repeatedly schooled on the lingo it uses to define key mission areas.

For example, terms like “outreach,” “neighbor” and “ministry” can mean different things at different churches, Lankford said.

“For those of us with younger Christians, we bear the responsibility of helping them form that language and telling them what it means,” he said.