March 25, 2007

Defining Our Terms

This is a brief I delivered as part of an assignment from the Eagle Leadership Task Force as part of our discussion concerning young pastors and the perception of denominational work. I post it for your consideration.

I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.’ ‘The question is,' said Alice, `whether you CAN make words mean so many different things.'” (Through the Looking Glass, Chapter 6).

Just what do we mean when we say, “We are not trying to preserve an institution but to create a movement to impact the world with the good news of Jesus Christ”? Are we committing the arrogant and foolish error committed by dear old Humpty? Perhaps a perusal of Webster’s collected wisdom will serve us well.

preserve – vb – [f. L. prae+servare to keep, guard, observe] 1 :to keep safe from injury, harm or destruction: PROTECT 2 a : to keep alive, intact, or free from decay b: MAINTAIN 3 a : to keep or save from decomposition

institution – n – 1 : an act of instituting : ESTABLISHMENT 2 archaic: something that serves to instruct; also: INSTRUCTION, TRAINING 3 a : a significant practice, relationship, or organization in a society or culture b : an established organization or corporation (as a college or university)

create – vt – 1 : to bring into existence 2 a : to invest with a new form, office, or rank b : to produce or bring about by a course of action or behavior … 4 a : to produce through imaginative skill b : DESIGN

movement – n – 1 a : the act or process of moving; esp : change of place or position or posture b : MANEUVER 2 a : TENDENCY, TREND…4 a : MOTION …6 a : an act of voiding the bowels b : matter expelled from the bowels at one passage: STOOL

All too often misused words lead to misleading thoughts. The general sense I get when we talk of preserving an institution is that this is somehow a bad thing; something sinister or, at best, a waste of time and effort. But when we talk of creating a movement there is a palpable sense of excitement. Why is this?

We have saddled “preserve” and “institution” with a backward looking, out of touch, and out of date connotation when, in fact, an accurate usage of these words is anything but backward looking. Something preserved is available for use in the future and an institution, at its heart, is relational, organized, and significant for the purpose of training: building blocks for those who will follow. In contrast the notion of creation and movements is exciting and “cutting edge”, forward looking and revolutionary. I will readily accede that creating is far more glamorous than preserving, however, I wonder if we are getting dangerously full of ourselves by placing our confidence in what we can create and promote rather than in what we have been instructed to preserve and communicate.

Maybe Mr. Webster’s instruction on using words like refresh, revive, reform, renew, recapture, or redirect is needed lest we fool ourselves into thinking we are something that we are not. We are not creating something new; we are simply attempting to faithfully receive, and ultimately pass on, the torch passed to us; an instruction to make disciples, baptize them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and teach them to love and obey everything He has taught us. “The worth of the tradition lies not in the form but in the source and the quality of the content.” (A.T. Robertson, italics added) It may be old, well used, and familiar but it remains revolutionary to this day.

“So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions (
teachings, what is handed over to one) that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.” (2 Thessalonians 2:15)

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