Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Breaking the Language Barrier

One of the criticisms that has been leveled against the Evangelical Christian church is that we speak our own language. But is this a bad thing, a good thing, or something in between? Now any group with its own particular knowledge and concerns tends to develop its own language; this is almost unavoidable.  Different occupations, hobbies, and enthusiasms develop certain technical terms to help them communicate regarding the things they are concerned about. This is an aid to communication because without the terms there is no easy way to express the concepts involved and meaningful communication becomes very difficult. However, this same language can become the basis of pride and exclusion. (I am someone who is in the in-group and knows the jargon.)

Now one of the problems we face, as Evangelical Christians, is that many of the words we use and the concepts they convey are no longer current in our culture. It is not enough to tell people to just speak English, because many of the things we talk about require detailed explanation to be clear. Words like justification, atonement and born again have no simple equivalents in ordinary English; they must be explained. But these words have the virtue of having been discussed and fought over for centuries and given a precise meaning no other term can have. There are, however, complicated technical terms which are not only unnecessary, but serve no purpose other than to show how educated the user is. There are other words that are simply jargon and serve no purpose other than to show I am part of the group that understands these things. There is pride in being in the right clique.

Based on this, I would make the following suggestions. Be aware that the people around us frequently do not understand our language and behave accordingly. Do not make statements and simply assume they understand them or carry on a conversation in their presence that is gibberish to them. Avoid feeling or appearing to feel superior because you are the one who knows the vernacular. Consider your audience. This can be hard, especially if you may be speaking to different types of people and do not want to confuse the one and bore the other. But it must be attempted. C. S. Lewis said that one of the tests of whether you truly understand your theology is whether you can turn it into ordinary speech. I would agree with him on that. Also, frankly I believe it is a good practice to eliminate or at least minimize words in your Christian vocabulary that serve no useful purpose. And we need to be sure we understand the meaning of the words we do use and do not just mouth them because it is how Christians talk. For if we want to reach the world, we need to talk to people in a language they can understand and that does not seem to be pushing them away.   

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