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."


  1. THANK YOU! I was just thinking earlier today about how many male seminary students never make the transition, and their churches never make the transition, and therefore their churches never end up including anyone who makes the distinction because their speech just seems too backward to ignore. When we were moving to KY, I quickly marked off my list any church that had male-gendered language for humanity on their church websites. I just can't take it.

    It DOES matter. People ARE refusing to come to churches because of this. It IS important.

    Olin was just listening to the PRAISE BABY CD my mom bought him this morning. Every time I hear that song singing, "When men look at me...I want them to see..." my mind does a double-take.

  2. f.y.i. - A version of this blog posting was published online by on June 21, 2010 with the title, "For Men, Only? Language Matters in Evangelism."