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Ecumenical group explores the power of language
used to talk about God and one another

By Meagan Manas 

Chicago, August 18, 2010 -- A diverse group of Christians gathered in Chicago, August 9-11 to explore the power of language Christians use to talk about God and one another.   

The participants represented a broad spectrum of ages, races, cultural backgrounds, gender, sexual orientations, abilities, denominations/communions, and professional fields. 

“Our vision,” said the Rev. Ann Tiemeyer, Program Director for Women’s Ministries at the National Council of Churches, “is for many conversations that take diverse contexts seriously in exploring the power of language (words, symbols or images) and how it can be used in life-giving ways that extend the hospitality of the church’s mission within the local church and community.” 

“This vision is grounded in the Gospel mandate to affirm life and carry forth the healing love of God found within the gospel of Jesus Christ in the face of the death-dealing effects of sin in our world,” Tiemeyer said. 

The gathering approached language issues using a descriptive rather than a proscriptive method.  The conversation was grounded in relationship and listening to each others’ stories of experiencing the power of language and the breaking through of God’s healing. 

Each person at the August gathering responded to the prompt: Share with us an experience when you noticed the power and/or importance of language (words, symbols, or images) and the impact of that language on your life, your faith community, or your relationship with God.  This experience may have helped you embrace the Divine more fully or it may have been destructive, harmful, or painful to you in your personal and/or faith journey. 

After listening to one another’s stories and noting their own responses, participants met in small groups to discuss what they had learned from the stories, led by co-facilitators Virstan Choy and Aleese Moore-Orbih. 

What was learned 

The stories told by the group called for language expansion—expanding the way we think and talk about ourselves, others, and our God.  Instead of restricting language, the stories called for adding more diverse language.   

Chris Lewis, a student at Loras College and member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America spoke of his experience in High School when he went on a service project with students who were not part of his usual “jock” clique. “I could see God through the diversity of people I got to know who I wouldn’t have met otherwise,” he said. “It expanded my faith.”  

Participants called for a breaking down of the “cliques” of our own communions to foster an expanding vocabulary and imagery for who God is and how God is revealed in our lives. 

The stories told by the group called for expanding the understanding of how language is tied to systems of power and has been and can be harmful, oppressive, and death-dealing. 

K. Ray Hill, the pastor of an urban United Church of Christ congregation in North Carolina, used the metaphor of the “melting pot” to explain how some ideas of inclusion only lead to normalization of the dominant culture.  Calling for more space to lift up a variety of heritages, experiences, and cultures, he said, “I’m for more of a ‘salad bowl’ model.”

Other participants also noted that when “inclusion” or “political correctness” is the goal, the dominant culture continues to be held up above others.   

“My culture is not demeaned in my church,” said Teresa Chavez Sauceda, a Presbyterian who describes herself as Chicana, “but it certainly is not lifted up.”  The internalizations of descriptions created by dominant groups for “others” -- even experienced through the lack described by Sauceda -- can reinforce stereotypes, ignorance, and oppression. 

The stories told by the group called us to expand contextual cultural attentiveness --understanding that language speaks differently in different contexts.   

NaKeisha S. Blount, NCC Advocacy Officer for Racial Justice and Human Rights, a joint staff appointment with the United Church of Christ who is affiliated with the American Baptist Churches and Progressive National Baptist Convention, Inc., described the huge cultural difference she often moves between, calling for more understanding of one another’s contexts.  

“Truth be told, there are those who are opposed to language like ‘God the Father’ because they never had a father, or they had a distant or abusive father,” Blount said, using a common example in discussions of language.  “But truth be told, there are those who would deeply grieve the loss of ‘God the Father’ because they never had a father, or they had a distant or abusive father.”  

The stories told by the group showed that in an environment created through respectful intentional listening, compliance to rules about specific words was not as helpful as commitment to understanding the impact of the power of language. 

“There was no list of forbidden words created; rather, we pursued a consciousness of how language shapes our own experience as well as the experience of others – precious wisdom,” said Inez Torres Davis, Director for Justice of Women of the ELCA. 

This kind of commitment can lead to real, meaningful analysis of systems of power that oppose the Gospel; extending a life-affirming hospitality within the church and community.   

Sue Hedahl, Professor at Gettysburg Lutheran Theological Seminary, characterized campus discussion around language there as revolving around the difference between “compliance” and “commitment,” and agreed that understanding what it at stake in the language we use is more valuable than simply following a list of rules. 

The stories told by the group also called for spreading this conversation to as many different places as possible.  In beginning to think about how to spread these conversations, the participants acknowledged the need for a variety of methods that might include listening, dialogue, liturgy and hymnody, humor, story-telling, art, and social media networks. 

What was learned at this gathering will be shared with the NCC Justice for Women Working Group to discern the next steps to spread these conversations as broadly as possible.  Participants were invited to be an ongoing part of the process.   

Said Torres Davis, also a member of the working group, “Our hope is to have such conversations occur in congregations, pericope studies, classrooms, forums, Sunday schools, pulpits, and so forth…The scholarship on expanding language has been done, including liberation, mujerista, womanist, feminist, GLBT, ableist, patriarchal, and other analyses of power within the faith and within those who hold the faith. It is now time to begin applying this knowledge.” 

Among the 25 participants, eight were men, six were under 30, three openly identified as LGBT, eight were clergy, nine were lay, five were seminary professors, three were seminarians, Ph.D. candidates or recent grads.  Three participants identified as Latino/a, seven as African American, three as Asian, one as Native American, eight as Caucasian, and three as mixed/bi-racial.   

Participants came from the following communions:  the African Methodist Episcopal Church, American Baptist Churches USA, the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Orthodox Church of America, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Progressive National Baptist Convention, Inc., the Roman Catholic Church, the United Church of Christ, and the United Methodist Church.                        

Since its founding in 1950, the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA has been the leading force for ecumenical cooperation among Christians in the United States. The NCC's 36 member faith groups -- from a wide spectrum of Protestant, Anglican, Orthodox, Evangelical, historic African American and Living Peace churches -- include 45 million persons in more than 100,000 local congregations in communities across the nation.

NCC News contact:  Philip E. Jenks, 212-870-2228 (office), 646-853-4212 (cell),
NCC photos by Ann Tiemeyer

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