My first weeks at university were spent in mild panic. I wasn’t a bad student, but somehow, I couldn’t understand half of my lectures. Tutors peppered their lectures with unfamiliar technical terms, most of them ending in ‘ism’. Readings were dense and inhospitable slabs of text. Often, I was scrambling to make sense of one sentence when my tutor had already said another three.
It was a relief to discover that most of my fellow students felt the same way. Most first years tend to get this type of shock when they get exposed to the fast-moving academic language of university classes. It was natural communication to my tutors, who were submerged in the university culture. They didn’t mean to be bewildering. But to students, it was like another language.
How we speak is powerful for including (or excluding) people. Which is why I wonder about how the situation appears when I relate to my unchurched friends and family.
Think about how many “technical terms” we as Christians use in talking about our faith to each other.
Bearing gospel fruit. Mutually encouraged. Love on others. Sitting under the Word. Accountability partners. Small groups. Doing life together. Greeting of peace. Laying on of hands. Raising up workers for the harvest. Gift of singleness. Eschatology. Fellowshipping together.
At times, I struggle to explain my faith without falling into this type of language. Language that no one outside faith circles should necessarily know about. Language that’s basically Christian jargon. I begin to wonder if I’m resembling one of those bad tourists who travels abroad and expects to communicate with everyone in English.
Do I even realise I’m doing this? And what effect does that have on my relationships?
Spot the jargon
Jargon gets a poor rap, but it isn’t all bad. Its most basic definition is “the language peculiar to a trade, profession, or other group”.
Jargon evolves into communication because it’s an efficient way for people in similar contexts to share information. It’s fast and gets the job done. Doctors use jargon to discuss medical cases with other doctors; tradesmen share information with other tradesmen; and so on.
It’s only natural that Christians would have their own words and phrases. After all, we have a whole history and faith that we can reference. Using these terms has advantages of efficiency and the ability to have deeper, more specific conversations with one another.
Where jargon falls down, though, is shown in a secondary definition of the term: “pretentious language abounding in uncommon or unfamiliar words”. Jargon is criticised for being vague and for excluding others. It works in a specific context for some; but can cause confusion for others.
A doctor friend of mine can understand a sentence like, “The patient’s haemorrhage dropped the haematocrit to the point where the myocardium became compromised, causing an infarction.” Me, I need to be told, “The patient’s bleeding dropped their blood count, resulting in a heart attack.”
Why? I have no medical background. Explaining medical concepts in medical terms to me is no good. You may as well explain Swahili to me in Swahili.
Can we say the same about our own jargon? What does it mean to invite Jesus into your heart, for example? What is the definition of an evangelical? Can we explain sin in plain English?
Not only does thinking about these concepts help us when we speak to our friends about our faith – it also helps crystallise our understanding of what Christianity is. Albert Einstein was attributed with saying, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” If we don’t think about what we’re really saying, we won’t be ready to explain it. We also won’t be ready to be inclusive of those who don’t speak the lingo.
Knowing our audience
I work in communications, so I’m prone to think about how to use words so that they resonate. When I write, I don’t say things in the hope that I understand them. I want their audience to get something out of them.
One verse that comes back to me is in 1 Corinthians Chapter 9:
Though I am free of obligation to anyone, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the Law I became like one under the Law (though I myself am not under the Law), to win those under the Law. ...
I have become all things to all men, so that by all possible means I might save some of them.
Paul recognised the importance of meeting people where they are, crossing all boundaries. He no doubt would have spoken in different ways to Jews, Gentiles, and those under the Law – not because he was sharing different truths, but because he wanted the hearers to understand well. He learned how to be fluent in customs and communication with his audience.
It’s the same with us. Can we speak our faith for our friends who don’t call themselves Christian? If we want our words to cross barriers, and if we want to be an inclusive community, we need to think about how we communicate.
My thoughts? Let’s start noticing when we use Christian jargon and think more deeply about how we’d explain our terms to outsiders. Let’s be critical about our language, recognising what may be unclear or confusing. And let’s keep one foot outside our community, not just inside.
Cheryl McGrath is a communications professional with a background in editing and publishing. She works as a copywriter and lives in Melbourne.
Cheryl McGrath's previous articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/cheryl-mcgrath.html.