By Eddie Pipkin
I had an experience at breakfast on Saturday morning that reminded me of the way ministry leaders routinely make references to topics to which non-church-goers and new-ministry-participants may be oblivious. When we do that – make insider references with which some of our audience is unfamiliar, and we include no background or context – we unintentionally create barriers that leave others feeling left out.
First, my breakfast story. I was paying for breakfast, and there was a comments board on which someone had scrawled, “Great meal! We shall return!” I laughed and said to my 20-something server, “Just like MacArthur!” She laughed and nodded, and then—because we had been carrying on a friendly conversation as she served us that morning—I added, “Wait a minute. If you don’t mind my asking, do you get that MacArthur reference? Does it mean anything to you?” She laughed again as she swiped my credit card, “Nope. Not a clue.” I spent the next couple of days paying attention to cultural references made by me and my peers that were passing straight over the heads of our kids’ generation (and likewise paying attention to the cultural references they were making that passed straight over ours—I had no idea who Cardi B was before the Grammys on Sunday night).
This was all a potent reminder of the way we habitually use theological and ministry jargon during worship. Our communications are filled with insider vocabulary, acronyms, and phrases that can be confusing for those new to the whole “church” experience.
Here are a couple of videos that have some fun with that, while making the point of how insular (and off-putting) this habit can be.
This one is Christians making fun of Christians for our reliance on catch-phrases and Christianese:
This one from BuzzFeed asks young people to take a genuine guess at what some of those go-to phrases mean:
Of course, all fields of interest have their own jargon. It’s a useful shorthand, a means of identity, and way to reinforce a sense of belonging. But for a movement based on inviting in outsiders and getting them connected, it can undermine our good intentions.
J.R. Briggs takes a thoughtful approach on the dangers of Christian jargon:
We invite people to “accept Jesus into their hearts” (a phrase not found in Scripture) or we say, “Before we worship, let’s pray,” as if prayer is not a form of worship. Perhaps we begin our Sunday service with “Spirit, we invite your presence here this morning.” May we never forget that the Holy Spirit is already among us, inside every believer. If we are not careful, our language can communicate things to others we don’t actually want to communicate.
Addie Zierman offers a take on the ways our insider references scare off millennials by creating a sense of moribund tradition and inauthenticity:
In the end, it’s not really about what churches say or don’t say. What millennials want is to be seen. Understood. Loved. It’s what everyone wants, really. And for this generation of journeyers? Choosing honesty over cliché is a really great place to start.
It is important that we take stock regularly of the words we are using. We can self-regulate by taking a copy of our printed newsletter and highlighting phrases, acronyms, and ministry references that appear obvious to us but may be unintelligible to those not “in the know.” We can do the same kind of exercise with our web site, social media accounts, and a close listening (or viewing) of a recent worship service. Even better, we should recruit an independent observer to do a jargon audit for us. A young person, unfamiliar with our ministry and worship style, makes an excellent candidate to do a deep-dive on the accessibility of our communications. Even if you needed to pay someone to take this project seriously and report back to you in a way you could share with your leadership, this would be a worthy project that would pay long-term dividends. We might be surprised by what we learn.
For a young person or someone new to discipleship or our denomination, governance terms like “Staff-Relations Committee” are gobbledygook. Referencing a “lectionary” reading leads to a shoulder shrug. Even a regular phrase such as “tithes and offerings” is unfamiliar and lacking in context. We use these phrases without further explanation, often in an attempt to solicit participation in ministry, then we act frustrated when no one responds (without considering whether or not they actually understood us). If we can take every opportunity to explain what we’re talking about, we reinforce theological concepts and discipleship practices. This not only educates newbies, but also clarifies these concepts and practices for plenty of earnest followers in the room who THINK they know they mean. And when we can translate tired phrases into simple, straightforward language, we can move more directly towards accessible spiritual truth.
Even researching this blog, I came across this reference to Catholic jargon, and not being a Catholic spiritual leader myself, was completely sidetracked by my ignorance of “confecting the synaxis.” Sure, we serve a spirituality based on mystery, but we’re supposed to be exploring the great mystery, not creating new mysteries! We want people to be able to worship and serve with us partners, not as confused and uncomfortable wallflowers, hugging the wall because they’re unsure about the dance steps. We should never automatically assume that our audience understands the terms we understand. We should be intentional about explaining, expounding, unpacking, illustrating, and contextualizing such references. After all, the reason we know them so well is because they play such a fundamental part in who we are and how we function. There is exciting content there—an opportunity for others to know our community and our faith more deeply.
What are some of your favorite examples of Christian jargon and how it has caused confusion and alienation? How have you worked to avoid this problem in your own ministry? What tips can you share with others? Join us in the comments section for further discussion.