I am reading a wonderful book by James and Deborah Fallows called Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of AmericaOver a five-year period, James and Deb traveled throughout America flying a single-engine prop plane. The purpose of their trip was to visit towns that have shown civic and economic reinvention. These towns are often not reported in the news, but each one has fascinating stories of new growth and vitality. The book is about these stories. While I am interested in learning about these towns, my reading of the book is done through the lens of the church. What lessons can we learn from revitalized towns that will help in the renewal of the church? Let me share an idea I learned from them.

In writing about Eastport, Maine the authors discuss the importance of changing the language in the narrative of the town. The words used in describing the town are important for the reinvention of the community:

Linda Godfrey told me how she and some other women noticed several years back, when Eastport was beginning to show its colors, that the media seemed stuck in how they were referring to Eastport.

She pointed to what they called the de-words. “The most-used de-words were words like: ‘depressed,’ ‘dependent,’ ‘decline,’ ‘despair,’ and were usually used in comments about economics, services, schools, population.” Godfrey continues: “It just seemed the de-words were ever-present, even if a story about Eastport was a positive one.”

So, the group set forth to crowd out the de-words with re-words, words like ‘rebound,’ ‘rediscover,’ ‘redesign,’ ‘reverse,’ ‘renew,’ ‘reenergize,’ ‘reemerge.’ They encouraged reporters and politicians to substitute the more positive words. (p. 75)

The change in language began to make a difference. It even led to another “deliberate vocabulary shift.” Referring to their nearby neighbor Canada and realizing the importance of civic partnership with this other country for matters of trade, culture, tourism and recreation, the citizens of Eastport began to say, “We don’t call it a border, we call it an opportunity.” (p. 75)

Churches have something to learn from the leaders in Eastport. The stories told in many churches today are filled with the “de-words” mentioned above. Perhaps we would do well to repeat the “re-words” that Linda Godfrey used. They begin to point our churches to a future of possibilities rather than a past of defeat. (Oops, another “de-word!) After all, we can add some other great words to Linda’s list. What if our church stories began to be filled with words such as the following?

  • Reimagine – Rather than being bound to what has always been, we reimagine where the fresh winds of the Spirit will blow us in the future.
  • Renovate – This reimagining of God’s tomorrow may cause us to need renovation in our churches. Remember that this word means “to make new.” 
  • Restore – Along the way we may have lost our way as churches. Restore means to “put back.” Maybe that restoration leads us all the way back to the practices of the early church in Acts.
  • Reduce – Sometimes more is less because we have lost our focus as churches. Buildings that can no longer be afforded and programs that can no longer be sustained may need to be reduced so that the new work of God can happen.
  • Revision – Proverbs teaches us that without a vision the people perish. (Proverbs 29:18). Dreaming a new dream for ministry and mission is an opportunity to re-vision (vision again). 
  • Reinvigorate – If people perish without a vision, they can be reinvigorated by a compelling vision for the future.
  • Reimagine – Instead of just focusing on the struggles of the past and the challenges of the present, when we reimagine what God can do in the future, we see new possibilities for ministry and mission.
  • Resurrection – This is the best of all the “re-words,” and it is the one that makes all the other ones possible. 

It is easy to feel constrained in the church today by borders of changing culture and boundaries of church challenges. I like the line from Eastport. “We don’t call it a border, we call it an opportunity.” Perhaps the language that we use in the church could make a difference. Why don’t we give it a try?  

David Hull
David Hull joined the CHC team in 2014. A native of Louisville, KY, David has been an active leader in community and denominational life for 35 years. Most recently, he served as pastor of First Baptist, Huntsville AL for twelve years. Previously he pastored First Baptist, Knoxville TN and churches in South Carolina, North Carolina and Kentucky. His wife, Jane, is pastor at Union Christian Church in Watkinsville GA. He is a consultant for CHC and the coordinator for CHC-Southeast.