Church Jargon: Use with Caution

booksAny newcomer to the church is often overwhelmed by all the unfamiliar jargon. Those who are in the church often speak in a way and use words that are never heard outside of it. Those of us who grew up in the church can often be less aware that this happens because everything is so familiar to us. But if the mission of the church is to reach those outside of it with the Gospel, then we must be wary of shrouding the Gospel with language so strange to those unfamiliar with it that they are unable to understand what we need to tell them. That being said, the church is not just an evangelism factory. The church has been given God’s word and we have been given the task of learning and understanding that word and what it teaches us about God and our lives together. The complexities of theology and the life of church require that we sometimes use a specialized vocabulary. To completely avoid doing so for the sake of “evangelism” results in a church that wants to bring people in, but doesn’t have anything for them once they are actually there.

So, we are free to use the specialized vocabulary that the church has developed for talking about theology, but we must use it with caution. We must be aware of why we are using the words that we use and whether we are using our words to build up the church or build up ourselves. 

The most helpful kind of jargon might be the most maligned: technical theological jargon. This jargon belongs in the academic realm or between pastors or laypeople with a serious interest in theology. Technical jargon allows discussions to be precise, exact, and efficient. It would be much more difficult to dissect and understand a text in Greek if we did not have words to distinguish between a 2nd person, plural, aorist, active, subjunctive and a 2nd person, plural, future, middle/passive, indicative. This kind of jargon helps the exegete work with exactness and efficiency. If you understand what these words mean there’s no problem and you can follow along and know exactly what he is talking about, but if you do not, then you will be hopelessly lost. However, in the context of complex theological discussion, there is no risk of shutting people out from the gospel. At worst, if someone does not understand the jargon, then they must find a discussion at a level accessible for them.

Yet, pastors and teachers must be careful about bringing technical theological jargon into public preaching and teaching. Depending on the word in question and the congregation, it may or may not be edifying. The pastor or teacher must know their audience and whether or not their audience is likely to understand what they are saying. Sometimes it might be an opportunity to explain the difference between justification and sanctification, but other times it might be better not to discuss the Genus Maiestaticum. At least not in those words. 

A second kind of jargon is denominationally specific jargon. Every theological tradition has specific words or phrases that can act as shibboleths, immediately identifying someone as a member of that tradition. For example, as a Lutheran I love to talk about Law and Gospel, Word and Sacrament, or Vocation. Calvinists love to talk about the Sovereignty of God. And Non-Denom Evangelicals love testimonies, “Father God we just wanna,” and metaphors involving fire. This kind of jargon is not necessarily bad. It’s natural that each theological tradition has developed and latched on to certain ideas and phrases that are central to how that tradition articulates the teaching of the faith. The only downside is that this can prevent brothers and sisters in Christ from understanding and learning from each other.

Each of these bits of jargon carry so much background and meaning with them because of shared experiences. So, when I say, “proper distinction between Law and Gospel,” anyone who is a serious Lutheran knows exactly what that means. This is great if I’m talking to other Lutherans, because by referring to that phrase I am importing a treasure trove of thought and conversation about what it means to properly distinguish Law and Gospel. But, if I am talking with someone from the Evangelical Non-Denom church down the street they will be as clueless as I would be if they were to talk about how they are just not on fire for Jesus anymore.

The third and final kind of jargon is the most unhelpful kind: Buzzwords and Christianese. Usually jargon exists because it carries a very specific and/or complex meaning. However sometimes jargon exists almost entirely as a shibboleth. Some words are used not for their meaning, but for what the word says about the person who uses it. The hipster church plant down the street isn’t calling itself an “intentional and authentic community of missional Christ followers” because each of those words carry a specific meaning, but because each of those words/phrases identify this group of Christians as not like those other Christians, those Christians who are presumably part of an “accidental and inauthentic hermitage of anti-missional Christ deserters.” The meanings of the words aren’t important, but the social capital that those words bring with them. Jargon like this does nothing but build up the individual and tear down the universal church. 

Our words can arguably do the most to help or harm people. It’s no wonder why James warns against misusing the tongue numerous times in his epistle. It’s easy to pick out certain kinds of speech as obviously hateful and destructive to the church. But Church jargon can also easily be a source of subtle harm to the neighbor, especially to those outside the church or those new to the faith. However, it isn’t always this way, which makes using church jargon particularly tricky. In short, church jargon is edifying when it is being used for the specific meaning of the word with an audience that is aware of its meaning, but unedifying when the use of the word causes unnecessary divisions in the church or when the word is used more for what it says about the person who uses the word. 

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