Jargon infects most groups, but is particularly concerning in religious ones.
Defined as “special words or expressions that are used by a particular profession or group and are difficult for others to understand,” jargon can also be thought of as “shoptalk.”
Imagine, for example, you were hospitalized and happened to overhear your doctor tell another, “He had a syncopal episode last night without any evidence of arrhythmia. I don’t think it was vagal but I ordered a 2D echo and holter. I still can’t rule out a vertebrobasilar event.” You’d probably struggle to make sense of what you heard. Yet this is what some church members and all church guests experience on a regular basis; during most of my church visits — regardless of denomination — I hear Christian jargon. (And though this column deals with the problem from a Christian perspective, I’ve heard jargon used in many other religious contexts too.) Jargon needs to be replaced by plain and simple speaking.
This week I’m sharing some clear examples of how religious jargon can confuse and confound many who hear it.
If you were a new church visitor and heard the term “love offering” for the first time, what would you think? Maybe offering oneself in some love ceremony? Yet many churches use this term shamelessly in services and mailings without thinking what it might mean to those who hear it without the benefit of a church background. Sometimes it’s used to describe taking an offering to support a visiting pastor. Or it may be used to signal this is a time to donate for a special gift for the pastor, usually on an annual basis.
And while we’re still on the term love, how about hearing “we just want to love on our pastor” or “love on our kids”? Those phrases give me the willies. One can only imagine what must be going on in the minds of first-time guests, especially with sexual misconduct and pedophilia issues these days. Use plain English, not these code words.
What do you think about when you hear Gospel? Many people use this term in everyday conversation having no idea of what it means, besides saying, “it’s the Gospel truth.” They’ve just heard it before so they’re repeating what they’ve heard. However, Jesus used this term to describe his ministry of reconciling man to God.
How about “washed in the blood”? Have you ever tried to wash anything in blood? The symbolism isn’t readily apparent to those without a Christian background, but it’s commonly heard in many churches, especially evangelical ones. The intent is to say that Jesus’ shed blood purifies us in the sight of God, a ritual cleansing. I’ve heard evangelists repeat this over and over. “Have you been washed in the blood? If you haven’t, why not? This is your chance.” I have visions of people running for the door.
Many churches and pastors use, or overuse, the term “missional.” What does that mean? In a wonderful blog post, titled “Meaningless Church Jargon,” Nadia Bolz Weber, a pastor and author, says, “Let’s make sure that in seminary classrooms and at church conferences and in congregational life when we use a term or a phrase, that it points to an actual thing, or person or event and is not just a string of words that sound like something meaningful but in fact, lack real meaning. There is a reason that my computer does not recognize the word Missional. Try it at home. Go ahead. Type that (expletive deleted) and see.” Bolz-Weber is a bit irreverent, but makes an excellent point.
Other examples of frequently recurring Christian jargon are: “the Bible says,” “saved,” “witness,” “propitiation,” “salvation,” and “make Jesus your Lord and personal Savior.” There are other ways to say these things that clearly communicate to people with limited knowledge of and exposure to religion. So much church language needs to be unpacked and made clear to people, allowing them to understand what’s intended.
Last Sunday, I heard a wonderful example of a pastor communicating without jargon. Communion was offered to all who attended that day, and the pastor clearly stated how the church believed in open communion, that the elements used, the bread and the wine, were symbols of the ministry of Jesus and were intended for all. He took time to explain their meaning and exactly how they celebrated communion, including how the bread was received and the words that would be spoken in extending the bread and the wine. He explained use of a common cup of wine and that one could choose alternately, to dip the bread in a smaller cup of wine, the practice of intinction. All were then invited to celebrate the great feast of communion.
What a loving and thoughtful contrast this was to churches who start serving communion without a word of explanation of what is happening, or even “serve yourself” communion when the “Lord places it upon your heart.” What does that mean?
Just as doctors, as in my opening example, owe patients a clear explanation of the terms they use to describe their condition, pastors and church members should do the same, avoiding the use of jargon in communicating about religion and religious experience. It might make a huge difference to the listener.
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