18 March 2011 — 36 Comments

'(No Cursing??) Sign' by christopherdale on Flickr

If there’s something guaranteed to get a number of Christians worked up, it’s a good old swear word!

Chris posted about Andy Crouch’s open letter to Mumford & Sons where he berates the band for using the lyric “fucked it up” in the song Little Lion Man. While he may have a point that the song contained the words needlessly (especially as they performed ‘clean’ versions for TV), I thought the letter was a little patronising. Anyway, it got me thinking about the use of swear words.

Generally, I’m not a big fan of swearing (or cursing) and try not to swear myself (too often anyway). That said, I do think it can be a valid form of expression and has been used to great effect in art and poetry. I will always remember as a teen when my friend’s parents were going through divorce, a senior figure in our church came up to us, looked sympathetically at my friend and said: “It’s shit isn’t it.”

Those were the last words we were expecting from this individual and it made us laugh out loud. They were also incredibly powerful words and gave validation to the feelings of my friend at that moment.

When working with young people, I hear a LOT of swearing. It’s part of the culture and language. Sometimes it seems to be good natured and fun, but sometimes it’s pretty offensive and disrespectful. So I’ve developed a general rule of thumb for when to intervene:

If someone uses swear words as part of general, descriptive language then I tend to let it go. I might occasionally ask them to tone it down or question why they’re using particular words, but on the whole I leave them to it. If I were to spend my time insisting on clean language and policing the conversation each time someone swore, I wouldn’t have the time or rapport to develop any sort of relationship with the young people.

However if someone is using rude or offensive words against or about someone else, then I challenge it head on. I won’t condone any sort of bullying or slander.

Obviously all this depends heavily on context. The rules above are for mostly of my general, open access youth clubs and groups where there is a lot of social activity. For a smaller, faith-led bible study group I wouldn’t really expect (or allow) any swearing. Partly because of the purpose of the group, partly because it’s a smaller intimate environment, and partly due to the expectations of the church, families and young people upon that group.

So how about you? What are your thoughts on swearing? What context do you work in and how is it different? Let us know in the comments.


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I am a qualified youth worker, writer and consultant based in Littlehampton, UK. I've worked in the voluntary youth sector for over 12 years, am married to Kirsty and we have two daughters named Hope and Eloise. Check out 'Journeying Together: Growing Youth Work and Youth Workers in Local Communities' and read my opening chapter.

36 responses to Swearing

  1. I suspect that there’s an calm authority that comes when you’re a youth worker who can cope with swearing and doesn’t let the shock factor faze them. A bit like if a young person is disclosing something really significant or tragic; it can be really calming to carry on listening without reacting from our own values or emotional response.

    I also think it’s a bit of a subjective thing. As you being to understand make up of each young person’s world you begin to understand the subjectivity that influences their swearing. To one young person it might just be a bit encouraging to be a bit normal and say ‘shit’; giving away that you’re human and flawed too. To another it might be more shocking or make them feel threatened or unsafe.

    Maybe all part of the balancing act that comes with relating to young people with many different view points and ideas… whilst trying to live out being a role model but also being credibly and sustainably fallible.

    • Hi Becca, thanks for taking the time to leave a comment.

      I totally agree that it’s a subjective thing and will vary widely depending on the experiences of the young person and the setting in which the interaction takes place. I do think that in very general terms, swearing is tolerated and better understood outside of Christian ministry, and by contrast far more shocking and outrageous when it occurs in church based projects.

      I love your closing line though – I might steal this: “…trying to live out being a role model but also being credibly and sustainably fallible.” Great quote!

  2. Nice thoughts Jon, I understand in one sense your view that the letter is a little patronising, my selfish frustration is that one of our rules is that we don’t play music with swear words at our youth cafe and other activities and so we can’t play that track, and yet I’m not sure that the swear word brought much to the song.

    As one of my friends, Peter Graystone said:
    Suspect if they realised they were going to be huge they’d have recorded ‘mucked it up’. Also suspect Marcus’ dad has had words!

    • Thanks Chris, I guess for me the swearing/not swearing debate about the Little Lion Man song was overshadowed by the snarky tone of the letter – particularly the “since you already sacrificed your artistic integrity for a spot on David Letterman, would it be too much to ask…” sentence!

      I do appreciate why a clean version would be very useful (isn’t there a radio edit?), but I’m still not sure I understand why the ‘F’ word in the song would cause such a problem for people (even Marcus’ dad) or why they would have changed it if they’d known their future success. Personally I think the song works either way!

      By the way, what rules/guidance on swearing do you have in place for your youth groups?

  3. I’m a bit too loose at our open youth groups on swearing. I like your guidelines. For me, it becomes difficult when it comes to music being played. Okay, I don’t allow the new Enrique Iglesias single whose chorus repeats “tonight I’m f-ing you.” But then another track comes on that is just as de-moralizing but doesn’t use the f-bomb. What to do? Allowing the young people to have a choice in the music that gets played gives them a certain ownership of the club itself. And yet the constant messages of sexual impurity, materialism, and the party lifestyle are grating–both to me who understands them to be so, as well as the young people themselves who are unaware of it.

    • Great point Loyd, I totally agree and often have this dilemma.

      There are many, many, many pop songs that talk about sex, lust, disrespect, etc yet don’t have swear words. As a part-time DJ I’m often asked to play this kind of stuff for children and young people. This is far more problematic than one F-bomb used for dramatic effect.

      A notable example was the 50 Cent track ‘Candy Shop’ which is so sleazy it’s painful to listen to, yet when doing a junior disco it’s all the kids wanted to hear. I actually suggested to one lad it might not be appropriate to play, and he looked at me confused and puzzled. “why?” he said, “it’s not rude!”

  4. wow – tough one.
    never quite sure myself. Whilst I struggle with the F-bomb, its worse for me when people use “Jesus” in a derogatory fashion. That is the only thing that I have never let slide, other words, incl. f-bomb, depend on the context, esp. in regard to open youth clubs v church discipleship group etc.
    In music – this is a tougher call altogether. There was one church that I worked for that did not allow any secular music in its groups – reason given was that if the yp could not cope for a few hours a week without it, then it was a problem. Did not agree with that personally but they had few complaints. The biggest complaint was from me – cos some of the music was dreadful 😉

    • Thanks Roy, I’d not ever thought about banning secular music! I can’t see the point of churches doing that – it’s not as if the youth group won’t hear it elsewhere or will have an addiction to it.

      However, I do understand that it can be helpful to filter things out, allow quiet time, explore alternative and positive songs/lyrics. I just don’t think there should ever be hard and fast rules to this kind of thing.

      I’ve had great conversations with young people over songs in the charts, what they mean, and why they’re singing along to “let’s go all the way tonight, no regrets, just love” (Katy Perry). It’s been good to allow space for that to happen!

  5. I manage youth provision for a local authority, and we’re very clear about swearing and music which uses swearing. We will always challenge young people if they swear, but I would agree that there are differences, for example when someone aims it at someone and verbally abuses them. Consequences are far more severe in those instances than if a young person swears whilst playing a game. It will still be challenged of course. About the music, well as we’re an educational establishment and we’re providing it, we have a duty to ensure that the songs don’t have swearing in, and have to be careful what we allow young people to play within the youth club.

    • Hi Emily, thanks for joining in!

      It’s interesting that you challenge every instance of swearing. My own experience in local authority clubs is that it’s very difficult to do so due to the numbers of YP and nature of the clubs (I’m talking generic open-access stuff here). Most workers I’ve seen, including myself, will discourage swearing and continually be saying “calm it down”, but know it happens anyway and largely filter out the ‘background’ swear words. I find smoking is a similar dilemma; some young people will always do it anyway and have to leave the premises to do so, even though the workers don’t condone it. It happens, so it’s hard to challenge each and every occasion.

      Also, do you never play songs with swear words? For another local youth club, we’d always get the ‘Now…’ compilations as they had clean versions on them, but every now and then someone would slip in an explicit Eminem track, etc! 🙂

  6. Being a Christian working in a secondary school with behaviour difficulty young people, this is something that I come up with all the time. Many’s the occasion we will have a group in the classroom and there will be the F-bombs flying and various other choice words that we all know and love!! I always challenge the students that are up there even if it’s an ‘OI!!’ or ‘Language!’. Quite often the students are unaware that they are actually swearing and it’s just part of everyday life for them and it’s for that reason I challenge it. They are often swearing with out neededing to and I feel it’s worth getting thm thinking about what words they use when.
    I will sometimes echo the words they use when they are talking about what they have said to a member of staff to get into trouble. This often shocks them as it is a member of staff using the words they use. This can lead into very useful discussions.
    As for me personally I probably swear too much although I do try to reel it in when around young people. However, I do feel that the occasional word in the right circumstances can show that you are human and just as fallable as anyone else.
    I once got 3 young people into a church run youth club by telling them to F off after a youth club so I could shut and lock the gate to a church car park. They did go but turned up before the club started the week after. When asking why they had come back they said they were impressed that someone from the church had spoken tpo them as they were used to they wated to find out more. They helped me set up and stayed for the event. Not recommended in the youth work books but it worked at the time!!
    Good thread Jon!

    • Brilliant Jim, thanks for weighing in. I love your stories (although I’m not sure I’d do things in the same way)! 😉

      From experience of working with you over the years, I know that your consistency and integrity go a long way towards the relationships you build with young people. I do agree that using the same vernacular as the young people on occasions can make a huge difference – in your case bringing them back next week!

  7. I think it’s important that people do work differently as that way we are able to reach a wider range of young people. As with this topic I don’t think there is a right or wrong way of tackling this, but we need to take into account the setting, people we are working with and the relationship we have with those young people. Taking all that into account we can then address things including swearing in the way we deem most appropriate at the time.

  8. Great post and comments – article for youthwork magazine coming up? Should be!

  9. Hi Jon,

    I work on the streets with alcoholics, drug addicts, etc. I’ve noticed that when they get to know you, they very rarely swear in your presence. When they do, it’s not at you but at other “street people” nearby. Afterwards they usually apologise to us for the swearing. Of course these folks aren’t Christians, but they do respect our view.

  10. Hi jon, great debate so far about swearing.

    Im a volunteer youth worker and have been for some years, in the day I work in a male dominated environment where swearing is part and parcel of working day.

    However I still find it unacceptable.

    During a recent youth night we devoted the evening to music and what music they listen to and how it influences them.

    We spent a bit of time talking about swearing in music and discovered that most don’t really care if the songs have swearing in them, they seem to not notice.

    We used some Urban Saints material it suggested we played “god is a DJ” by P!NK in the first verse is the F word, I spent some time thinking if it was appropriate to play it. Until I met with my team before the young people arrived I was still undecided.
    We did in the end decide to play the track and at the offending moment turn the sound off.

    We don’t have too much trouble with swearing on a Friday night, but would remind the youngsters that we would rather they didn’t if we heard it.

    The question that I ask myself since reading the comments is this, is it possible to become immune to this sort of thing if we hear it everyday? Im thinking of myself and the young people as they listen to their music.

    Keep up the Great Work.


    • Hi Malc,

      Thanks for taking the time reply, I love hearing from those who do this youth work thing voluntarily! It’s one thing for us who get paid to talk about it, but I’m aware that the vast majority of workers out there are voluntary and do it for love.

      It’s good to hear about the music debate: should we/shoudn’t we play music with swear words?

      I also wonder if we can become immune too easily. There are certainly times when I “miss” comments or words because I hear them frequently. Is the same thing true of sexual lyrics? Do young people not notice some of the messages because they’re so used to hearing about it?!

  11. Hi JJ,

    I like this post, swearing is something that is so regular in our society but that doesn’t receive this kind of coverage/time of day/debate often enough. Although it’s rather boring, and I’d love to offer an opposite argument, I completely agree with your post. I tend not to swear myself and generally ignore it in films/songs/conversation but it is when that language is used against someone, like it is criticising or comdemning them even further than the words would without expletives that I object to its use. However, in this situation, it’s not the language itself that I object to – it’s its meaning in context.

    I don’t know if you remember back in the days of ACC Youth group. One day we all sat around and you asked me to read out one of the stories from ‘The Shock Of Your Life’ and it contained the F Word…I noticed it in advanced and asked you whether or not you wanted me to read it and you told me to do what I feel confortable with. If I remember rightly, I choose nto to use it. The problem I have with such words used so liberally is habit. If those words become habit in our general conversation…sooner or later we will begin to use them to offend and they will make our offensive feelings stronger. I guess that’s the reason why I don’t swear in everday life BUT I don’t judge people who do because it’s a personal choice and so not my place to pass judgement.

    Just my opinion!!


    • Hi Jo,

      I had forgotten about that time you were reading out the story! In that kind of setting, even reading out a swear word can be controversial (I guess as it’s proving to be in the Mumford & Sons song).

      Do you think that you (or I) choosing not to swear is a reflection on our upbringing and culture more than anything else?

      Thanks for chipping in to the discussion!

  12. My upbringing was very definitely free of swear words, rarely would I hear my parents swear and when they did I knew it was serious!!! I always had a no swearing policy in my youth work – however I was much firmer on the ‘no blaspheming’ than I was the ‘no swearing’ – like you Jon, I intervened when the swearing was directed or intended to hurt others rather than being a general ‘joining word’!

    However, since joining the military I have found myself completely surrounded by swearing – or what in the traditional sense are ‘swear words’. The Royal Navy have their own language…’Jackspeak’ or naval slang to civvies! You see swear words banded around as part of the language, as part of the describing vocabulary or just because there isn’t another word that quite fits. This goes from the highest ranks to the lowest. The majority isn’t said in anger, it isn’t directed at someone (inanimate objects aside!) and really my differentiation is that it isn’t cursing. The difference that rang true when I was younger still rings true today for me – if it is cursing then it is inappropriate. I have to admit that my language has turned more colourful without me even noticing. When I am on ship or base, I catch myself swearing and immediately feel guilty – a throwback from my parents telling me off I’m sure! Just like I picked up all the other slang as well. I still have a hard line against blasphemy and happily explain why I don’t like it. I’ve joined the Naval Christian Fellowship and often we get dits (stories or lessons in jackspeak!) by many other christians who have had the same experience. Although, it is still apparent that my language isn’t quite as bad as I fear…often I get asked the question ‘why don’t you swear?’ – meaning a) it’s a great witnessing opportunity and b)when I do – they know it’s serious!!!

    Nice article Jon!

    • Hi Becky!

      I’m fascinated by the use of language in other contexts. Like you say, is swearing offensive if it’s part of everyday descriptive life (like it is for many young people)? When does something become offensive?

      I remember the word “crap” being very controversial when I was a kid. My parents didn’t like it and the grandparents found it unacceptable and rude. However all the kids would say it and I only learnt it as part of everyday language. Now it’s not really considered rude at all.

      I’ve also found in travels overseas, there is far less offence in English swear words. Possibly as a result of watching english TV and movies, most people I know who speak english as a second language are very comfortable using swear words in everyday conversation.

  13. Personally I have no problem with swearing unless it is said aggressively. For me they are just words in the English language, that someone somewhere along the line decided that they would be considered as unacceptable. I would discourage swearing when at work, and wouldn’t swear I front of the young people, as I wouldn’t want to actively encourage it. I have found though after telling the young people to watch their language a few times they generally try to watch what they say, and often if they do slip up they say sorry. I see swearing as more of a respect thing, I work in areas that have no youth provision other than my mobile provision that is taken there once a week. The young people realise that if they don’t respect it, it will leave. I think it is important to show young people that there are situations where swearing is not acceptable (like school or the work place) and that they need to respect that. However, if I walked past the young people I work with outside of work and I heard them swearing in general conversation I would not pull them up on it.

    Also I have found that when asking young people what rules should be in place in my mobile provision swearing always comes up, the young people know that it is not desires behaviour, but of course that makes them want to do more.

    I do agree with Jim, occasionally swearing in front of young people shows them you are human, and sometime you need to talk to them on their level, sometimes even for the shock factor.

    • Thanks Rosie, glad you commented! Do you think there’s a difference between how you act/react in and out of your work role? Why is that?

      Do you feel that the young people cite “no swearing” as a rule in your mobile provision because they are expected to, or because they genuinely appreciate it is a respectful and good thing to do?

      I also agree (as you can tell from the main post above) that a well placed swear word can have a positive impact!

  14. Interesting there is so much interest in this! Here’s my two pence worth.

    1. Surprised no one has mentioned Philippians 3:8 yet – which I’m told is best translated ‘I count it as shit, in order that I might gain Christ’ – you can draw other examples from scripture which indicate sometimes fairly strong language is required to portray some biblical truths.

    2. Following on about communicating truth, sometimes swearing can make a powerful point. What’s that Tony Campolo quote? “I have three things I’d like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don’t give a shit. What’s worse is that you’re more upset with the fact that I said shit than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night.”

    3. I felt a danger when doing youthwork that what I was actually trying to bring about was middle / upper class values, rather than the Kingdom of God – they are different!! I think the language thing plays in with this. I don’t deny as someone moves on with God over the years their language will probably ‘clean up’ but is this really a priority matter?

    4. Linked with 3, a danger I also felt was that it’s quite easy as a youthworker to portray dicipleship as ‘not doing certain ‘sins” e.g. getting drunk, getting laid, and swearing. This seems to me a great disservice to Jesus’ call on our lives? If the medium is the message, what does it say if the first contact a young person has with a Christian worker is, ‘don’t swear’?

    5. For some people I know, if they met Jesus, their most heartfelt response would probably include swear words. I’m not condoning this, but surely the more ‘mature’ in Christ can overlook this kind of offence rather than shutting the door in people’s faces.

    Sorry, far longer than I intended! Like your blog by the way.

    • Hi Andrew, thanks so much for taking the time to read and comment. I think you raise some excellent points and articulate them well!

      1) I’m not sure anyone’s ever explained Philippians 3:8 to me in that way before. I kind of like it! Do you know where I can read any further explanation/justification of that?

      2) That’s a very famous example of swearing within a Christian context – and I wholeheartedly agree with his point. Which is why I argue that swearing can be valid. I still avoid it in general conversation though. It loses power when overused.

      3) This is a very good point. A number of writers have argued that youth ministry is often about instilling the unstated moral values of parents/church upon young people rather than true discipleship in the faith. I believe this is a very uncomfortable ‘truth’ that many are waking up to and seeking to change.

      4) This focus on avoiding sin is the product that comes from the moralistic purpose some churches impose on youth work. “Don’t do drugs” is the standard mantra that replaces an authentic relationship with Christ! (possibly a bit harsh, but it does happen)

      5) Totally agree! The least important aspect of an encounter with God is a changed vocabulary. In fact, the most appropriate response could well be “F*$%ing Hell”! 😉

  15. Swearing is definitely an interesting thing and just like everyone else, here are my thoughts! FIrstly from a scriptural point of view, it’s no cursing and I think the argument for context of swearing is an important one. Linguistically speaking words and their meanings change through out the centuries, even little things like the fact that once biting your thumb at someone was considered the equivalent of “Fuck you!” “Crap” is another great example how over the 20 years its changed and I’ve heard it in plenty of church sermons in the last few years even. Culturally as well there’s a big difference depending where you go in the world. “Bloody” which isn’t a particularly bad word but most of us still would probably not use in a sermon is more then likely to appear if an Australian is preaching for example! Here in Texas, I had an interesting one the other day as I preached on the question of suffering. I use both the term “Crap” and said “damn” and “hell” within that. On the front row some of the youth were giggling (they were guests, not regulars). It was only an hour later that I twigged that here in the Bible belt words like “damn” and “hell” are often perceived as more rude then many swear words! Thankfully in our church they’re not the big deal they would be in other places, but even my mobile phone does not have the word “hell” in the predictive text.

    I do think there are points where swearing can make a point in a strong way, I think actually that what is behind it is often more the cause. There are plenty of ways to speak down or badly without the use of certain words. I think it’s an attitude to combat rather then words specifically. Also very much agree with Andrew’s point about discipleship not being “here are your instructions!”

    And lastly, sometimes there is no other word to quite sum up a situation. I will always remember being in the office with you Jon and something happening and you saying “oh no problem , i’ll deal with that later” and someone told you something like “that was yesterday Jon” or a situation similar to that effect and your only response was “bollocks!”

    Comedy genius!

    • Hey Rich!

      You’re right about the distinction of swearing and cursing. Certainly meanings of words change over time and there’s a lot of recent evidence over acceleration, adoption and adaptation of global language to form local meaning. Just check the urban dictionary for (questionable) examples!

      I love the fact you’ve lived in Texas for 6 months and hadn’t twigged using “damn” and “hell” in a sermon wasn’t a good idea! I’ve taught you well… 😉

      I also like your little anecdote on the end there! I don’t remember that exact situation but it certainly sounds like something I’d say! 😉

      • ha the use of “damn” and “hell’ had come up before but just hadn’t really thought bout it when preaching! As I said the church here wouldn’t butt an eye too much at it thankfully! Still, funny times!!

  16. Fascinating discussion . . . just to be clear, if M&S had not performed the words “messed it up” on Letterman and the BBC I never would have asked them to release that version. (There is a radio edit available, but it simply blanks the vocal track for that one word, which to me seems notably artistically inferior.)

    If their artistic vision requires “fucked it up,” so be it (though, as I said in my open letter, I don’t personally think it works nearly as well when it’s repeated every chorus—for a counterexample, see Bruce Cockburn’s extremely effective use of profanity in the song “If I Had a Rocket Launcher”). But since their artistic vision (which is what is almost always invoked when artists use profanity or other shocking material) clearly didn’t require it on Letterman, I’d love to be able to sing the alternate version with my 14-year-old. (And by the way, he was the one who was most disappointed by the profanity, not me.) Is that too much to ask? And is asking “berating”??

    It’s awfully hard to convey tone when writing online, and I hate to think I sounded patronizing when I really was mostly trying to be tongue in cheek. Maybe I did. However, I’m quite sure I did not “berate” them.

    • Hi Andy,

      Thanks so much for taking the time to comment. It was your post that sparked all this off!

      I do think you have a point regarding artistic use of swearing. Thinking about it, I totally agree that it works best as a one-off use within a song. It’s also clear that you know a lot more about the use of language in writing than I do, so I respect your understanding. Personally, I really like the artistic version but I wouldn’t play it in a public place for the reasons you cite.

      I find it useful and encouraging to note that it is your 14-year old who first questioned the Little Lion Man song. I love it when young people start to ask their own questions rather than accepting the norm, and I think it’s a fair question regarding the lack of an available alternative version. Simply blanking the offending words out leaves the song feeling incomplete.

      Regarding the tone of your original letter, I did interpret it as quite a snarky, negative jibe at the band. Not knowing you (and at that point not having read any of your other posts), I did think it was a little condescending. I apologise for the term “berate” though. 😉

  17. How about swearing directly at workers? In our club a few challenging young men are always trying to demonstrate how rebellious they are. This seems to me a bit redundant because the club is in fact very liberal. However recently it has spilled into outright brazen swearing at staff.


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    […] (Andy Crouch writes … Dear Mumford & Sons), and the great Jon Jolly then wrote a post on Swearing which has generated some good debate amongst youth workers on when is foul language appropriate and […]

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