Language as a tool for unity

As church leaders, we must go beyond simply naming and addressing our own biased perceptions or leading the members of our congregations and organizations in naming and addressing their biases. We must also take active steps to expand our category of “us” so that “they” are now included in “us”. One way in which we can lead others in changing the way we see ourselves is by talking about ourselves differently. Language plays a significant role in determining our social perceptions; in subtle ways, names and labels applied to people influence the way that they perceive themselves and others. In my group identity research , my colleagues and I often take a group of three people who had no previous contact and attempt to transform their identities as individuals into identities as group members. One significant way in which we do this is by asking them to create a name for their group. Once they acquire a group name, we only refer to them by their group name for the duration of the five-week study; we never refer to them by their individual names. For example, over the course of a one hour lab session, they hear the experimenter refer to them by their team name approximately 15 times. Interestingly, by the third or fourth week of the study, we found that when participants are asked to spontaneously describe themselves, they often include their group name! Even though their group name was unknown to them less than a month before, it now impacted their identity so much that they used it to describe themselves. Language powerfully shapes the way we think of ourselves.

In the same way that my colleagues and I use language to shape the identity of the participants in our experiments, we can use it to reshape our perceptions of ourselves and other groups in the body of Christ. By default, we often use the terms us and them when we think about and talk about different church groups. Us usually refers to our cultural group and them usually refers a different cultural group. Unfortunately, the simple distinction between us and them leads to misperceptions and greater divisions. Research shows that individuals automatically perceive anything that is related to we as pleasant and anything that is related to they as unpleasant. This is because words that refer to our ingroup have primarily positive connotations and words referring to the outgroup have primarily negative connotations.

This research finding led the researchers to conclude that “simply using an ingroup designator (e.g., we) in thought or speech to refer to a person may automatically establish a positive predisposition toward person, whereas an outgroup designator (e.g., they) may elicit a less positive or even negative predisposition. Indeed, the mere use of the words us and them can powerfully affect how we think about others.

Based on this research, it is clear that if we begin to use ingroup designators such as we and us (rather than they and them) when we refer to the former outgroup, we will begin to associate the former outgroup with the same positive attributes and feelings that we associate with ourselves. This way of thinking and speaking is a stark departure from our current way of thinking. As I mentioned in chapter 4, we often describe ourselves in opposition to others. In our sermons and conversations, we often talk about how we are distinct from them.

What if there were no them in the body of Christ? What if all were simply we? Not only would this begin to see others in a more positive light, it would also implicate ourselves whenever we decide to offer constructive criticism. No longer can we perceive the problems of former outgroup members as their problems. As newly-minted members of us, their problem is now our problem. We can no longer stand at a distance, point our fingers at them and shake our heads in disgust. We must lovingly and wisely engage because to fail to do so would incur harm to ourselves. In this way, consciously avoiding us/them distinctions in the body of Christ changes the way that we approach and perceive each other.