The power of words (Norman Ivison)

Wednesday, 12 October, 2011

Norman IvisonNorman Ivison explores the power of words.

I'm having the fascinating experience at the moment of watching my 18 month old granddaughter acquire language. She is already learning that if she wants a certain response she needs to use certain words. She is getting quite skilled at it  - especially when her doting grandparents are around.

As a professional communicator, I have always been aware of the potency of language. As the Fresh Expressions initiative emerged six years ago, I remember how important it was to get the 'language' right if the values and principles were to gain currency. But it is also easy to forget the power of words.

Reading a fascinating book at the moment on male spirituality (The Intimate Connection by James Nelson) has made me ask how different the Fresh Expressions movement might have been if we had adopted another kind of language. It's a question that has crossed Lucy Moore's mind recently and she responds with her usual insight and humour in the book Pioneers 4 Life, edited by David Male.

So, for example, instead of 'pioneer' with all its stereotypical masculine 'starting from scratch', 'going into foreign places' connotations, how about 'nurturing' with its gentle approach, 'developing what is already there', 'doing it in a safe place' connotations? In some ways nurturing language is more faithful to the theology of missio dei, believing as I do that we are going where God is already and that nowhere is really the Wild West.

To some extent we almost become what we say we are, and that applies as much to the missional church as it does to the individual. In using the language of pioneering or venturing, we are in danger of saying that when forming new contextual churches you need leaders able to go into unexplored places, to hack out a home in the wilderness, to bring civilisation to the desert.

How different might the Fresh Expressions movement have been if we had adopted another kind of language?

But that is only half the story and in some places not the story at all. According to an online dictionary, a pioneer is 'a person who is among those who first enter or settle a region, thus opening it for occupation and development by others'. That's a very church-centric view of the way the Christian faith will emerge and develop in a new place. It can make the mistake of the hardened cowboy, herding the cattle and creating a homestead in the second half of the nineteenth century. They should have realised and we need to realise that wherever we go there are people already there. We will rarely be the 'first to enter and settle a region'. God will have long before started planting the seeds and tilling the soil and maybe even enjoying the growth.

So what kind of person is attracted to pioneering? Back to our choice of words. Would more women have applied to be missional ministers if 'nurturing' language had been available to them I wonder? I am in danger of making assumptions about gender difference I know - after all, there were some women pioneers in the Wild West - but how might the fresh expressions movement look if we emphasised the need to protect and foster the latent Christian faith we find, and stand alongside, holding hands and drying tears, rather than forging ahead, clearing the land and building church?

Before the Fresh Expressions office sends me my P45, I need to say that pioneering/venturing  language has and is serving us well. But we need other terminology alongside that if we are to do justice to our theology of cross-cultural mission here in the UK and to the wide range of people God could be calling into this work. It may make our communication more difficult and messy, but we are up for that.

The lesson for me as a paid communicator is always to watch my words and be aware of my own cultural background as I choose them. Certain words create a certain response. They make a massive difference.

About the author: 

Norman Ivison is Director of Communication and Resources for Fresh Expressions.


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