One of my favorite Warner Brothers cartoons is the 1952 “Rabbit Seasoning.” Check out the hilarious dialogue between Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck:
Bugs Bunny [to Elmer]: Would you like to shoot me now or wait till you get home?
Daffy Duck: Shoot him now! Shoot him now!
Bugs Bunny: You keep outta this! He doesn't have to shoot you now!
Daffy Duck: He does so have to shoot me now! [to Elmer]: I demand that you shoot me now!
[Elmer shoots him.]
Daffy Duck: Let's run through that again.
Bugs Bunny: Okay. [in a flat tone]: Would you like to shoot me now or wait till you get home?
Daffy Duck: [flat tone] Shoot him now, shoot him now.
Bugs Bunny: [flat tone] You keep outta this. He doesn't hafta shoot you now.
Daffy Duck: [with sudden passion] Ha! That's it! Hold it right there! [speaking to the audience]: Pronoun trouble. [to Bugs] It's not: "He doesn't have to shoot *you* now." It's: "He doesn't have to shoot *me* now." Well, I say he does have to shoot me now! [to Elmer] So shoot me now!
[Elmer shoots him.]
Pronouns are important. I am not trying to be some weird grammar nerd (although I would be okay with that reference). What I am attempting to get at is that the use of pronouns in the way Christians talk and write belies how we view ourselves, our world, the church, and, even God. If we are not careful, pronoun trouble will get us sidelined from God’s agenda for the church.
For example, a person comes up to the pastor and says something like “we don’t like _____.” Go ahead and fill in the blank. It could be anything. The gun goes off. The important thing to note is that an individual is speaking on behalf of a group, or the entire congregation. That says a lot about the person. It says that not only is the person taking on a grandiose position of assuming that he/she knows what everyone else is thinking, but, maybe even more significantly, this person does not differentiate him/her self from the group. The person is so enmeshed in the group or system that speaking as an individual is not practiced. Many people within the church need the ability to step back and discern what it is they actually need and want, then be able to state “I would like to see ______.”
Let’s take the opposite kind of example. A parishioner approaches another congregant and emphatically states something like, “my needs are not getting met here, so I am going elsewhere.” In this case, the individual is too detached from the larger congregation and can only use the personal pronoun. The parishioner needs to adopt some plural pronouns in order to better connect with others. The real problem is one of not having a sense of community and the role that the individual plays within it. There is too much of a focus on self and not a missional sense of working together to achieve a noble cause.
So, then, there are here two approaches to be avoided. On the one hand, some congregations can be so entrenched in a particular system and way of doing things that they cannot imagine doing things differently. “We have always done it this way” are the seven deadly words of the church. On the other hand, there is the solitary person who can never quite seem to think of others but constantly evaluates everything done in the church through the filter of what she can get out of it for herself.
How Christians talk of others outside the church is also of much importance. “They” and “them” are pronouns that can easily be used to refer to some nameless people that we do not want within the fellowship. It is prescient to keep in mind that a pronoun refers to a proper name. Who are “they?” Are “they” really a threat? It would be much better to define who we are talking about and why. Sometimes pronouns are not the best way to talk to each other. “The missions team would like to reach young urban professionals with the gospel of Jesus” is better than an amorphous “we do not want them in our church services.”
I hope you get the picture here. Pronouns are important. Their proper use can either further the mission of the church, or they can get us into trouble. Pay attention to language, because it has been given to the church as a sacred trust.