Clean Up Your Language

There is a lot of mission vocabulary commonly used that bothers me. Some, no doubt, irritates you as well. I may be bothered by different mission community-related terms than you, but I would wager that all reading this blog take exception to some of the jargon that is all too frequently heard or spoken within mission circles.


Take the word “nationals” for instance. Just what is a national anyway? Is that the best term we can find to indicate the indigenous people within a certain country? It comes across as too generic and too inclusive, especially in countries made up of multiple ethnic entities. I recall when working in a mission home office here in the States several years ago, one of the vice presidents was a respected white South African. One day he half jokingly said in an office-wide staff meeting, “I enjoy working with all of you nationals.” The ensuing chuckles showed he had made his point. Surely there are better non-ambiguous terms to use when speaking of peoples in countries other than our own.


Then there is the “M” word.” How many times have you been in a mission sensitive country where the missionaries guardedly speak about other “M”s? Maybe when in their home they don’t want their house help to know whom they are talking about. Or maybe that solitary letter is used when in conversation on public transportation. “We M’s do this, but those M’s do that.” That just sounds down right degrading to me. Is there a problem substituting, “worker,” “member,” “message bearer,” or “expat worker” in its place?


Or how about “Majority World” when speaking of believers the world over who are outside North America and Europe? Why, of course they’re the majority! They are 83% of the world’s population when segmented this way. “The Global South” doesn’t cut it either. China, Mongolia and Japan are further north than most of you who are reading this. I’d like to suggest its time we move to another more definitive term. How about the “non Euro-North American world” when speaking in this context?


If there is a term that really riles me it is “yarping.” I cringe each time I get a prayer letter from a message bearer in a sensitive country asking me to “yarp” (i.e. “pray” backwards) for them. It is just too close to “bark” – as if I am some sort of dog. Now really, would one not think that with all those sophisticated government utilized search engines in China that they would not know what you are yarping about?


A term that was clarified a generation ago but needs to be highlighted again for this current generation of missionaries is “target.” “We are targeting this area,” or “we are targeting that people group,” is commonly heard. “Target” implies a military objective. The last thing we who are engaged in cross-cultural missions want to convey is that we are militants or militaristic. We need to stop using this word. One of the best substitutes is “focused area,” or “focus people” when explaining a ministry objective.


Of course the word “crusade” has now almost entirely been eliminated from mission vocabulary. That’s a good thing. The students in the college down the street from where I am writing are no longer know as “crusaders,” but as the “storm.” A very large mission organization now uses only the first three letters of the word in its name. Lopping off the “sade” was a good move, retaining identity to the part of the word (crux) from Latin meaning “cross.” There are still a few holdouts, but by in large, anything smacking of the horrific atrocities of the Middle-Age Crusades dare not be synonymous with mission work today.


Here’s one last one: “mission field.” In this age of intense globalization coupled with accelerated international migration, just where is “the mission field?” In one sense its new boundaries are endless – or maybe more precisely, non-existent. In another sense, a sending organization can convey a region of the world where it has workers by referring to its “ministry area.” I prefer the phrase Jesus used when he called the geographic span of our outreach the “harvest field” (Mat. 9:38). It has a ring of vastness and ingathering. So this Sunday as you leave your church service and glance at the sign above the exit that reads, “You Are Now Entering the Mission Field,” take to heart its intent, but not the terminology. Maybe ask the deacons to take the sign down altogether, or to change it to “harvest field.”


I am of the opinion that we need to clean up our language. What do you think? Am I off base by nit picking on some traditional mission terms? Maybe you have some you want to add to the list for critique? I’d like to know.









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