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Could Code-switching Be Why People Aren’t Returning To Your Church?

In the 1950’s Einar Haugen coined the term “code-switching” to describe the practice of moving between multiple languages during interactions. The Harvard Business Review defined the term saying: “Broadly, code-switching involves adjusting one’s style of speech, appearance, behavior and expression in ways that will optimize the comfort of others in exchange for fair treatment, quality service and employment opportunities.” This is a behavior they suggest leads to a lack of authentic relationships and contributes to burnout.

Jeremy Hall, Associate Pastor at Towne View Baptist Church in Kennesaw, Georgia and co-host of the Kingdom Ethics podcast with David Gushee, makes the following connection between code-switching and the local church: “Many of our congregants have been coming to church for years and have been code-switching to be the kind of people the church wants them to be, or the kind of people they think the church wants them to be.” Hall argues that for many in the American church, code-switching has become part of the religious experience, whether it be out of a desire to fit in, a fear of being vulnerable or having been led to believe that there is only one acceptable way for Christians to behave.

Hall further observes that when the pandemic hit, congregants were able to drop their facade, and they found themselves liberated. They discovered that many of the relationships they had at church were superficial and that their church was the source of their burnout, not the cure. Simply put, people were exhausted from having to go to church and pretend to be a different person. Now they were free from having to worry what someone thought about what they wore, how their kids behaved, or thought about what they posted on social media. The chances of someone wanting to go back to that are slim.

Five Possible Solutions

Summarized below are five possible solutions Hall offers for churches to eliminate or at least mitigate the need for code-switching.

First, cut out the insider language. Cut out the unnecessary flowery religious language where possible to help people feel like they are in a space meant for them to understand and belong in. Speak the language of the people.

Second, celebrate and model authenticity. Train people to cut out the Christian double-speak, no more insincere “I will pray for you” or “bless your heart.” Train lay leaders, pastors and church members not to scandalize people when they are open, honest or confessional, and to create safe places by holding those confessions in confidence. Further, pastors and lay leaders can lead out by modeling authenticity.

Third, emphasize belonging over behaving, forgiveness over judging. Jesus always led with forgiveness and love. Churches must do the same and lead with love, acceptance, forgiveness and belonging.

Fourth, reprioritize spiritual development and discipleship. Churches must do the hard work of redeveloping and reprioritizing spiritual development and discipleship programing.

Fifth, develop a broader or more global church perspective. Developing a broader perspective on the work of the kingdom can shift our perspective from being concerned with us and “our” church with its imperfections to a greater sense of calling and purpose. Make personal connections with missionaries in the field, pray for the persecuted church, and get involved with justice issues and the marginalized.

Church leaders must open their eyes to the sea change that the pandemic has brought to our culture and our churches and realize that business as usual will no longer suffice. Studies have long revealed that people long for authentic relationships and authenticity from their leaders. The pandemic has shown a light on the lack of authenticity in the church and given people the freedom to say, I don’t need this in my life anymore.

Posted on March 8, 2022

Jim Baker

Jim is a Church Organizational Leadership and Management Coach, Consultant and Trainer. Throughout his career Jim has demonstrated a passion for showing Pastors and Ministers how to use organizational tools for church and personal growth and health.

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“For I may be absent in body, but I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see how well ordered you are and the strength of your faith in Christ.” Colossians 2:5