8.15.2009

Make Church a Jargon-Free Zone


Depending on your networks and interests, you are likely to have several layers of jargon you’re comfortable with using. Maybe you subscribe to a trade journal for software developers, or regularly attend conferences for health care professionals, or work for a large company that seems to have its own “language.” At any rate, what might be indiscernible to the rest of the world is second nature to you, whether it is acronyms (ASCII, EHR, ISO 9000) or terminology (capitation, server virtualization, quality assurance).

The reason for all of this alphabet soup and all of this strange vocabulary is that people in these fields have essentially created a sort of shorthand for themselves. The assumption is that everyone knows what these terms mean, using the terms rather than explaining oneself over and over again is more efficient, and outsiders for whom these strange words and phrases make no sense don’t really need to know what they’re talking about anyway.

Makes sense so far, right? So why is there so much jargon in the church? I did not grow up in the church, and so even though I have now lived more life as a believer than not, I think I am still sensitive to the perspective of the outsider who, upon arriving at a new church, may be made to feel as an outsider who isn’t meant to understand what everyone else is talking about.

I’m not even talking about our common habit of talking to our fellow congregants instead of making extra effort to say hi to a newcomer and introduce him or her to others nearby, although the absence of that sort of welcoming and inclusive vibe certainly leaves an impression on guests. No, even if we’re really good at that sort of thing before, during, and after our worship services, I wonder if the actual words and phrases we use create a feeling of exclusion rather than inclusion.

For example, I can still remember way back when that the first time I heard the acronym, “VBS,” I thought they were referring to a sexually transmitted disease. Religious terms that most of us take for granted, like “Holy Spirit” and “salvation” and “sacraments,” beg to be elaborated on rather than used in a way as if to say, “We all know what we’re talking about when we say that . . . don’t you?”

Again, I’m not talking about the non-verbal cues we give off to newcomers, although those are just as if not equally important – how many times have we huddled up with long time friends after a service has ended, literally shielding ourselves away from some poor newcomer who pretty easily gets the hint that there’s no more room left in that circle. I’m also not talking about dumbing down or altogether ignoring spiritual truths – there is room for intellect and for theology in our churches and in the hearts and minds of today’s seeker.

All I’m saying is, walk into a room of Java programmers or pharmaceutical representatives or Six Sigma gearheads or even baseball stat junkies. Notice how it feels to be physically in the same room but not understand a word you are hearing, to realize you don’t really belong. Now think about the extent to which a newcomer to your church, upon hearing the acronyms and terms and special names you casually throw around in your worship service, feels the same way.

I assume we would all say that we want our congregations to be welcoming and that we want to honor people who take the bold step of checking us out. But the way we use jargon, it is as if what we really want out of our church involvement is to socialize with our own, create a comfortable setting in which we and we alone know what we're talking about, and not really have to bother explaining to or including outsiders. And if that's the case, shame on us.
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