Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Language Matters in 21st Century Evangelism

Through the years, Rick Warren has consistently provided food for thought on the subject of evangelism. Agree with him or disagree [which I often do, especially when he links evangelism exclusively with his preferred worship style], his words are difficult to ignore. Sometimes, however, I wonder if he really listens to himself*:

· “There’s no ‘one-size-fits-all‘ approach to fishing, and the same is true in fishing for men.”

· “The goal is . . . to make it as easy as possible for the unchurched to hear about Christ.”

· “We will do whatever it takes to reach more people for Christ.”

· “What matters is that your style matches the people you are seeking to reach.”

With his constant rhetoric about 21st century evangelism techniques, one would think that using gender-inclusive language in everyday speech, song, and biblical translations would be near the top of Warren’s list of ways to attract women to the gospel.

But that’s not the case. At minimum, he obviously doesn’t think gender-inclusive language is important. More likely, he rejects the notion outright. It’s just too much trouble--and highly unnecessary--to adjust the gender-exclusive verbiage commonly found in church circles.

Warren definitely is not alone in his perspective. Throughout history, women have been forced to adjust to “one-size-fits-all” patriarchal language that helps keep women linguistically invisible. Centuries of patriarchal grammar rules have required people to interpret whether words like “man,” “men,” “he,” “him,” and "his” refer only to males or to everyone.

These long-accepted rules allow using masculine pronouns to refer to either a male or a female. But the rules never allow female pronouns in reference to males. “Man" or "he" or "him" can refer to "one man" or to "everyone". "Woman" or "she" or "her" can never refer to males.

Dwight Moody, now Executive Director of The Academy of Preachers, writes in a 2002 article, “The Bible is a Man’s Book“:

“As it is, men controlled the translation, interpretation and proclamation of the biblical message. Only within the last generation have such positions of scholarship and authority been open to women. This heightened awareness of gender is part of a broader cultural shift, of course. Many are now asking: How can a book ‘of the men’ and ‘by the men’ be anything other than ‘for the men’?”

“There is a double standard here built into the prevailing paradigm of masculinity, which allows both men and women to hear male language as neutral and female language as gender-biased.”

Constant, unexamined use of such outdated grammar rules is ultimately inexcusable for modern Christians trying to convey clearly the gospel to today’s world.

Ignoring for a moment that human biblical writers were already influenced by ancient patriarchal, hierarchical society, translations such as the NRSV, CEV, TNIV, et al, are at least intentional about clarifying gender meaning as they translate the so-called “inerrant” Hebrew and Greek source materials into easy-to-understand language. When the source text obviously has a plural meaning, for clarity these translations use words like “people,” “everyone,” or other plural synonyms rather than “man,” “men,” etc.

Yet there is great resistance to inclusive translations. And those who ask why are quickly dismissed as “feminists.” Warren’s own words identify the real problem:

· “The problem with many churches today is that they’re stuck in the culture of the 1950’s—using bait and hooks that worked in that era—and they’re wondering why the fish are no longer biting.”

· “The kind of fish you want to catch will determine every part of your strategy.”

· “Unfortunately, many churches don’t take the time to understand the people they want to reach.”

· “Many churches offer only two choices: Take it or leave it.”

With the SBC's (and others’) continuous, patriarchal pronouncements about women plus the great resistance to inclusive translations and gender-inclusive speech/song modifications, it is no wonder that many women--churched and unchurched--remain uncertain whether or not the whole gospel is truly for them.

* Bulleted quotes are by Rick Warren, from an article by Jon Walker, Western Recorder, May 2001, “Rick Warren Offers Evangelism ‘Fishing Lessons."

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Intentional Inclusion: Race & Gender

Recently, at the KBF (Kentucky Baptist Fellowship) Spring Gathering, Robert Parham’s new, award-winning documentary, “Beneath the Skin: Baptists and Racism,“ was shown to participants. While viewing the presentation I felt a sense of despair that despite decades of excruciating effort to rid our society of this blot, racism still plagues us. Like kudzu, we can’t seem to get rid of it, no matter how diligently we prune. Just when we think we’ve dealt with the issue effectively in some areas, killing it off for good, it keeps reappearing in unexpected places, even in our churches. We’ve made progress, of course, but our society still has a long way to go.

One of the areas in which we have made some progress is with racist language. Today’s American society has largely been sensitized to the ill-effects from using racist language when referring to people groups, especially African-Americans. In the last decade or so, America has had growing challenges with use of racist terminology for Hispanics, Muslims, and others, but we’ve been dealing with racist terminology for African-Americans much longer.

Slavery in America has been illegal since the Civil War, but racist language was publicly, openly heard until the late twentieth century, and still persists in too many circles. People of color long ago recognized that they would never achieve equal status with Caucasians as long as common, derogatory terminology about their race remained unchallenged. In the aftermath of the Martin Luther King, Jr. era, anyone using racist language today risks becoming a target of scorn and possible legal action.

The problem with racist language is bigger than derogatory terminology, however. It’s just as devastating to be "invisible": ignored, unseen, not thought of.

Former Secretary of State Condolezza Rice, honoring the memory of her childhood friend, Denise McNair, and three other girls killed in the 1963 Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, AL said in a speech a few years ago, “America finally came to terms with its birth defect, finally came to terms with the contradiction . . . that when the Founding Fathers said, ‘We the people,’ they didn’t mean any of us.” (RNS)

Racist language and sexist language garner the same basic effect: exclusion. The exclusion may or may not be intentional, but the effect is still the same. As with racist language, despite decades of slow progress, gender-exclusive language is still with us, even in churches.

Midway through the 2008 American presidential campaign, then-candidate Barack Obama, in a Democratic primary campaign speech, quoted Abraham Lincoln, proclaiming, “All men are created equal.” I was surprised that Hillary Clinton, his female opponent at the time, didn’t take Obama’s unexamined use of this 19th century quote as a reason for rebuttal on the grounds that in the 21st century the quote is perceived as sexist. [Perhaps she either didn’t notice or didn’t want to risk being labeled as “unpatriotic” for questioning the words of Lincoln, a revered American icon.]

The truth is, Lincoln’s words were exactly what he meant. He was trying to bring the races together, not the sexes. Likely he wasn’t deliberately excluding women; he just hadn’t thought to include them. Women were invisible to him in both grammar and thought when it came to important issues.

That’s the problem with gender-exclusive language in a nutshell. Language shapes thought. Thought precedes action. And our grammar rules and practices keep women linguistically invisible. Our moderate churches say they are including women, but unless church leaders are intentional about including them through deliberate, consistent use of gender-inclusive language, women will remain second-class members in most churches.

It’s not a matter of intentionally excluding women. It’s a matter of intentionally including them. It’s a matter of recognizing that the overwhelming majority of them are already one-down in society and must constantly be intentionally included in order to have the same opportunities as their male counterparts. Otherwise, by default, they will remain invisible and overlooked for church leadership positions and other opportunities traditionally offered to males.

Jesus didn’t just preach equality. He practiced a life of intentional inclusiveness, giving us a perfect example of how to treat each other with love. Jesus reached out a welcoming hand to the woman with the issue of blood, to the Samaritan woman, to the lepers and tax collectors, to the children whom his disciples dismissed, to others whom society marginalized. We can do no less than follow his loving example.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

My First Blog--Ever
This is my first blog--ever. I've been reluctant to start blogging, knowing my words might draw fire.

I'm uncomfortable with being a target; my life is complicated enough as it is. I don't like being the center of controversy. I especially don't like risking stereotypical, derogatory labels conveniently applied by passionate people who disagree with my stance on hot-button issues.

As a woman minister I like being perceived as talented, competent, spiritually mature, friendly, cooperative, approachable, trustworthy, compassionate, easy-going, lighthearted,...the list goes on. Words like feminist, control-freak, rigid, controversial, man-hater, troublemaker, hard-driving, and other far-less-polite terms are labels I'd like to avoid.

For the past few years I've regularly written columns--mostly about worship and church music ministry--for Connections, our church newsletter (articles accessed under "staff" at My goal for those columns has been to be informative, inspirational, and pastoral. Those columns are tailored specifically for our current congregation as I've gently steering through controversial waters about worship practices and music ministry issues one-at-a-time, trying to build community and morale within our very diverse—and decidedly opinionated—congregation.

For my Connections columns there has been no urgent need to address issues about women or women in ministry, because this congregation came to the conclusion decades ago that gender was not to be a barrier to full inclusion in the life of the church. For fifteen years now I've thrived while serving God and this church as Music/Worship Pastor. I've seen several senior pastors and staff members come and go. Currently--except for our Senior Pastor--our entire pastoral staff team just happens to be all female.

In such an oasis of acceptance (including issues other than gender), it's sometimes easy to forget that ours is a highly unusual church, especially among Baptist churches, both conservative and moderate. But step outside our doors and BAM! It frequently smacks you in the face!

Some of us—pastoral staff and a few savvy church members—are aware of the bias that's so prevalent in churches elsewhere. But when average members of our church return from a worship service or wedding at another Baptist church, they incredulously report what they heard and/or saw take place in regards to women. And first-time visitors to our church often comment (for good or bad) that they are astounded by what they see and hear--especially if it's a communion service, since nearly half our current deacon body is female.

For about thirty-five years SBC and CBF churches have graciously employed me full-time (part-time while I was in seminary) as their Minister of Music—against all odds, when you consider the prevailing climate against women ministers through the years.

However, full-time—or even part-time--employment by Baptist churches has often been denied to my "sisters in ministry." So many have felt the pain of open rejection or at best only partial, limited acceptance in churches. All of this thwarts God's calling upon their lives to full-time ministry in the local church. Since the early 80's I've felt that it was a part of my ministerial calling to be an advocate for women, especially those called to professional ministry.

So, I've started this blog. I'm blogging for a broader audience than my current church family, although I have no guarantee that anyone will be interested in what I have to say. Articles posted on this blog sight will be "edgier" than my Connections columns.

Most of my posts will deal with women's equality, women in ministry, and especially gender-inclusive language issues. I've had articles published through the years about women in ministry and gender-inclusion issues, but I've never dealt publicly with language issues in the church and beyond. Even today all of these issues are alive and well in churches everywhere, especially in Baptist circles.

I'm expecting that most conservatives will resist everything I have to say; even many moderates will resist my attempts to clean up the sexist language that still prevails in churches, just because it's "inconvenient," or they feel like I'm "shoving the issue down their throats."

In recent years I've come to believe that gender-inclusive language is foundational for women (outside and inside the church) to experience full acceptance in church and society. Total elimination of sexist language will undoubtedly never happen in my lifetime, but that doesn't preclude my efforts to raise awareness of and sensitivity to this important issue.

Language gives shape to our thought. Thought precedes action. The gospel message of inclusion can never adequately be delivered in the vehicle of non-inclusive language. We must be intentional about raising awareness of and facilitating change in the language of the church.

This is why I'm blogging. This is why I'm risking controversy. Join me on my journey....