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“Pagan” in 21st Century Ministry

by Stephen Hebert on Thursday - 1 February 2007

in Ministry

I am not a politically-correct person. However, I find the use of the word “pagan” bothersome.

Definition and a Little Etymology

Typically, the word is taken to mean “non-Christian.” The original Latin term, paganus, merely means “rural,” or “rustic”—”of the country.”

How did this transference take place?

It is commonly believed that paganus came to mean “non-Christian” because pockets of polytheism persisted in the countryside, far from the emerging Christian majorities in the city.

It is further believed that the Old French paisent (aka “peasant”) is a cognate for pagan.

Connotation

Because “pagan” originally comes from rustic roots, the connotation that it carries is that of ignorance and savageness. The term often evokes images of sacrifices and savage rituals.

We can argue all day long about whether or not this is an accurate way to describe the typical non-Christian American, but we’ll both agree that if this is the connotation that it carries, then it is probably an insulting term.

Us vs. Them

So, somewhere along the line, paganus came to mean “non-Christian.” This use of the term reinforces an Us vs. Them paradigm that blocks effective ministry.

When doing ministry, we would be remiss if we believed that our plight was drastically different from those we are evangelizing or serving. Regardless of our stance toward God, we are all sinners cast in the same mold.

Referring to non-Christians with a term that is typically derogatory in its usage only serves to distance the ministers from their target. Jesus’ ministry involved sharing experiences.

Distance undermines.

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