Impactful or Meaningful?

By Dr. Paul Raybon

I have to start by confessing that I am a lover of words. I still have my crumbling 45-year-old paperback Roget’s Thesaurus, although truth be told I am more likely to consult thesaurus.com in a pinch these days. And to be precise, I am not a lover of all words, I love the right word.

I came by this enthusiasm naturally as a voracious childhood reader. The summer reading program at our local library didn’t have forms with enough lines for me. I devoured books like my golden retriever eats his meals, in great gulping bites. That came in handy when I went to college, but I had to learn to read more slowly and reflectively to properly digest the heavy load of translated-from-German-theology books in seminary.

This love was also shaped by nurturing parents, siblings, and teachers who helped me to see that one word could be ever so more precise in conveying meaning than another. And some words are, well, lesser, than others. My mother, working in public school administration, railed against “certificated” and “orientated” and challenged her superiors to remember that “certified” and “oriented” had ably described what they were trying to communicate for centuries. Which brings me to “impactful.”

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the inerrant authority on such things, says “impactful,” invented in 1939 and popularized beginning in the 1970’s, is derived from the noun “impact” and means “having a significant impact or effect.” It sounds a lot like “certificated” to my ear. But what does my personal distaste for a relatively new word have to do with ministry in the church?

It’s about what we’re about. We are purveyors of meaning not impact. We open Scripture and tradition and reason and experience to help others find lasting meaning and truth in a world that seems bent on obscuring both. It’s tough to navigate meaning in the midst of pandemic, war, inflation, and political, social, and ecclesial strife, but that is what we are called to do.

Instead, we are tempted to go for impact, to fire for effect, to shock and awe. To impress with wit and sarcasm, to wring out tears with emotional stories, to stir anger with our righteous indignation. All those tactics will get you a “wonderful sermon, pastor” at the door.

But will they get our congregations through the week?

What does it mean to accept grace? What does it mean to be merciful? What does it mean to welcome the stranger? What does it mean to seek the welfare of the city? What does it mean to honor your parents? What does it mean to raise children in the wisdom and instruction of the Lord? What does it mean to witness to the truth? What does it mean to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself? People are drowning in meaninglessness, and we know better.

So, this week as you prepare to teach, preach, counsel, or converse, ask yourself—do you want your words to be impactful? Or meaningful?

These thoughts are from Rev. Dr. Paul Raybon, our partner in ministry in the Western Carolinas, who can help you and your ministry navigate congregational unity and effectiveness. He is Associate Pastor at Hominy Baptist Church near Asheville, NC and works with churches and leaders as a coach and consultant in communication, visioning, administration, and spiritual formation. Contact him for more information about how he can help you.

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