My family is going through a season where we have to watch our language. We have a two year old politeness monitor who has been told that she can’t say “stupid.” So every time I say “stupid” (because let’s face it: sometimes things really are stupid), I hear, “No Daddy, you not say that” in a hushed, condescending tone that is usually reserved for, say, a presidential debate moderator.

(I would point out to her that the correct sentence is “No Daddy, you shouldn’t say that,” but I’m afraid she’ll call me stupid.)

Just as “stupid” is a word that’s not allowed in our house (unless something really is stupid), “visitor” is a word that we steer clear of at our church. For years, it’s fallen on me to be the resident language cop, making sure that we’re calling people “guests” rather than the dreaded V-word.

So why does “guest” trump “visitor”? I first learned this from Mark Waltz several years ago. In his guest services Bible, First Impressions, Mark says this:

“…when we attach such labels to those who are not Christ followers, we need to be aware of the nuances those labels carry with them. For instance, terms such as…visitors have caused us to further alienate those who are really no different from ourselves…”

In Beyond the First Visit, Gary McIntosh says it this way:

“Visitors are often unwanted, Guests are expected.  Visitors just show up, Guests are invited.  Visitors are expected to leave, Guests are expected to stay.  Visitors come one time, Guests return again.”

And finally, Theodore Kinni of the Disney Institute puts it like this in Be Our Guest:

“Words create images and corresponding assumptions in people’s minds. Take the word guest. An unhappy guest and an unhappy consumer are likely to create two different images in an employee’s mind. Guests are welcome; consumers are statistics. If someone is your guest, don’t you feel a greater obligation to ensure his or her happiness?”

Although it’s a tiny hurdle, it’s often one of the most difficult for a church to overcome. We’re accustomed to speaking in terms of the number of visitors we had, the location of visitor parking, the time in the service where we ask the visitors to stand and introduce themselves and tell us the sin that they’re currently struggling with (What, you don’t do that? Oh, you should definitely do that. Visitors love that!).

If you’re a pastor or a hospitality leader, try making that small one-word tweak this weekend, and see what kind of difference it’ll make. Because calling people “visitors” is…well…just stupid.

What are other off-limits words in your ministries? Comment below.

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