Is Insider Language Killing Your Gospel Community?

Since we planted Coram Deo Church twelve years ago, I’ve worked relentlessly to eliminate “insider language” from our vocabulary. I desire for every gospel community within our church – as well as our public worship on Sundays – to be free from Christian jargon that unnecessarily alienates and confuses non-Christians.

What are some examples of insider language? Consider this representative list of “Christian jargon” from Tim Keller’s book Preaching (New York: Viking, 2016, 105-106):

  • “Lukewarm”
  • “Backsliding”
  • “Seeing fruit”
  • “Spiritual warfare”
  • “…in my walk with the Lord”
  • “I’m praying for an open door”
  • “I’ve been released from that”
  • “That was such a blessing”
  • “That preacher really brought the word”
  • “It was a total God thing”

You’ve used some of these phrases, haven’t you? Me too. It’s so easy for Christians to slip into this alternate language without even thinking about it.

When we do, it’s a failure of hospitality. And the problem runs deeper than just using the wrong words. Keller goes on to explain:

The issue is far more important than generational or regional preferences or some sort of marketing-based concern that such vocabulary doesn’t test well with non-Christians. Language like this is used as a boundary marker, a way to tell others that you are in the tribe and they are not. Newcomers certainly get that message, whether you consciously mean to send it. Insider language is frequently also an enabler of hypocrisy, as it offers a shortcut to sounding spiritual without actually having a heart filled with love and delight.  

 We’ve all been on the other side of boundary-marker language: in high school, in our vocational endeavors, or in our social circles. Inevitably, we feel like outsiders: “These people all have something in common, and I don’t fit in.” That’s exactly what many non-Christians sense when they’re around church gatherings. And that’s the reason many churches and small groups aren’t meaningfully attracting non-Christians.

Occasionally I’ve stopped a gospel community gathering, or pulled someone aside in private, to challenge them about insider language. And the response is usually the same: “But we all know each other. There are no new people here this week. So why does it matter?”

Answer: because the way to get skeptics to show up is to talk like they are already there.

Imagine a woman in your gospel community – we’ll call her Sarah – has a skeptical friend from work who’s been asking questions about God. And Sarah is wondering whether your gospel community might be a good place to invite her friend to process those questions. If Sarah experiences your gospel community as a place where you have to “know the language” in order to fit in, she probably won’t invite her friend from work.

But if Sarah experiences your gospel community as an intentionally hospitable people… if she knows that every single week, the group expects non-Christians to be present (and talks like it)… if she knows that you care enough about outsiders to show it in your language… then she’s much more likely to bring her friend. And that’s how non-Christians find their way into meaningful Christian community – and eventually into the church.

So, if you’re serious about creating community that engages skeptics and outsiders… can I suggest you take a “language audit?” Which of the above phrases have you heard in your GC? Which have you heard yourself saying? What if you committed together to call “time out” every time you heard one of these phrases, for the sake of growing more aware of your speech habits? It’s a simple way to become more intentional about gospel hospitality.


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  1. Bob, I know you are/have been active with a lot of atheists; Is language really the reason they are not at small groups? Or is it because they know we are studying the Bible, which is seen as backwards, hateful, foolish, or superstitious and which aims (in their view) to restrict their ‘freedom’?

  2. I agree that we should strive to use common language where possible and define particular terms where necessary. What would be helpful to me is to suggest examples of appropriate substitutions for the terms put forward as examples of Christian jargon.
    “Seeing fruit”
    “Spiritual warfare”
    “…in my walk with the Lord”
    “I’m praying for an open door”
    “I’ve been released from that”
    “That was such a blessing”
    “That preacher really brought the word”
    “It was a total God thing”

    • my offer….
      Lukewarm: emotionally unmoved by your salvation
      Backsliding: increasingly choosing sin over righteousness
      Seeing fruit: growing in patience, forgiveness, mercy, wisdom….
      Spiritual warfare: the devil and/or his minions tempting, discouraging, and/or accusing
      Walk with the Lord: on my lifelong journey of becoming more sensitive to the Holy Spirit and being “more like Jesus”
      Open door: I’m praying for God to create an opportunity
      Been released: a. I’m feeling God no longer telling me I need to stay.
      b. I no longer struggle with that sin.
      Such a blessing: ….this one really seems self-evident to me. What’s needed, a definition of a blessing?
      Brought the word: Preached in a manner which made it clear and felt that scripture is written by God to us and is still applicable today. (?)
      Total God thing: This happened by God’s hand, He made it happen.

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