Lay Person or Muggle?

Can we just banish the term “lay person”?

I’m serious. Even though I grew up with this term, know more or less just what it means, and tend to use it myself, I still think it’s high time to get rid of it.

Why? Because it sets up a dichotomy between those who are experts and, well, those who most decidedly are not.

Not sure what I mean? Then just tell me what “lay person” means in the first place. Those reading this blog who have spent some time in seminary might be quick to remind me that it comes from the Greek word “laos” which means people. Okay, fine. Now tell me what “lay person” means to anyone who hasn’t studied Greek. That’s right, words more like “amateur” or “non-professional” or even “dabbler” come to mind. We even use it self-deprecatingly, as in “I’m just a lay historian, so don’t take me too seriously.”

I was talking about this with a colleague not too long ago when he shared that after his last congregational meeting one of the church council members said to him, “Pastor, every time you say the word ‘lay person’ I hear the word ‘muggle’.” For those not initiated into the Harry Potter universe, there are two kinds of people in Harry’s world: magical witches and wizards – Harry and his friends – and non-magical people called “muggles.”

“Every time you say the word ‘lay person’ I hear the word ‘muggle’.” Now do you see what I mean?

I don’t know, maybe this word worked back when the world was more or less Christian. Maybe, that is, it made sense to divide the world into two kinds of people – those who were practicing Christians and those who were professionals. But now that we have moved beyond an even nominally Christian culture we can’t afford to have the majority of Christians walking around thinking that they really don’t know what they’re doing and the other so-much-smaller group of Christians regarded by themselves and the rest as the experts, the ones (maybe the only ones?) really qualified to practice the faith in any kind of significant way.

In other words, we can no longer afford to divide the Christian world into professionals and amateurs. Frankly, in this wild and wooly postmodern, post-Christian world, we’re all amateurs, learning again and anew what it means to be a faithful disciple of Jesus in this day and age. Some of us may be a little better acquainted with the Christian tradition and have had some formal training in reading the Bible, and that’s great. But lots of others are probably more familiar with the changes, challenges, and opportunities of the everyday world. Which means that we’re in it together.

I also think that if we could get rid of the notion that some of us are professionals we might get more “regular” Christians involved in leadership. To be honest, I think pastors work too hard. Or, maybe better, they’re working too hard at the wrong things. Far too often, our clergy are the performers of the faith – you know, the ones who preach, offer pastor care, do Bible studies, and the like. We treat them like we might a concert musician, letting them do all the work while we sit as admiring spectators. My question at this stage in the game, particularly given the retreat of vibrant Christianity in our country, is why in the world we don’t have all Christians working at interpreting Scripture and making connections between faith and life (the sermon), caring for each other (pastoral care), and helping each other read the Bible in a way that helps them live their lives in the world today (Bible study)?

Don’t worry, the clergy still have an important role to play, but now rather than being the resident experts pastors function more like coaches and conductors, using their expertise to help us play – whether it be a game or piece of music – better. Maybe, in fact, if we eliminated the lay/clergy, amateur/professional distinctions we’d find more people willing to take all the things they know from their varied and diverse experiences in the world and see how all that applies to their – and our! – life of faith.

Now, of course, comes the question: What would I substitute in place of the traditional designation for those who are not ordained? I’m not sure. What about “everyday Christian”? We might play off the double meaning here in that you don’t have to be spectacular to be a Christian – we are an everyday kind of people – while also reminding us that our faith isn’t just for Sundays but should be lived, indeed, every day.

You might have some other – and probably better! – ideas than I do and, if so, I’d love for you to share them in the comments below. We’ll see if we can come up with a better way to talk about our shared call to be witnesses to the love of God. In the meantime, I guess we’ll just have to muddle forward, muggles, wizards, squibs (you’ll have to read the book!) and all the rest together. Thanks for your help!