In favour of jargon (sort of!)

I recently gave a talk to a group of church leaders and their teams, on language. I was asked to speak about how we use words to effectively communicate to a broad range of people. We particularly focussed on the church and how Christians can communicate in such a way that everyone understands, irrespective of whether they share the same basic presuppositions about faith.

I shared this challenging quote from C.S. Lewis:

Our business is to present that which is timeless (that which is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow) in the particular language of our own age… We must learn the language of our audience. And let me say at the outset that it is no use at all laying down a priori what the “plain man” does or does not understand. You have to find out by experience… You must translate every bit of your theology into the vernacular. This is very troublesome and it means you can say very little in half an hour, but it is essential. It is also the greatest service to your own thought. I have come to the conviction that if you cannot translate your thoughts into uneducated language, then your thoughts were confused. Power to translate is the test of having really understood one’s own meaning. A passage from some theological work for translation into the vernacular ought to be a compulsory paper in every Ordination Examination.” (C. S. Lewis in God in the Dock)

This is an insightful and painful quote! It’s true that once you go down the route of trying to communicate in language that everyone understands, you quickly find yourself able to say less in half an hour – which is particularly challenging as many of us have reduced what used to be hour-long sermons to around 30 minutes! Everything needs more careful explanation and illustration. Where you previously could have used one word you now need to use a paragraph. And it also means that some of the precious words we love and which come instinctively to us no longer deserve a place in our vocabulary.

Over the past few years, I’ve really been thinking about the language I use, in every area of my life. The church that I preach at has been working hard to translate everything we do into accessible language. This has been a difficult process, frustrating at times, but also strangely rewarding. If I listen back to talks I gave three years ago and compared them to now, I’m far more comfortable with the language I use today.

In the early days, I approached this task quite naïvely. I thought it was all about jargon. Jargon was the enemy. And so the task was to draw up a list of all jargon words – which then get banned – and draw up a second list of new words to replace the first. But in reality, all that does is swap one jargon list for another. And often the result is that under the new list nobody knows what you’re talking about!

The fact is, jargon is not necessarily a bad thing. We use jargon in every area of life and it is unrealistic to think that we can do without it. In many instances jargon can be deeply frustrating. It can become a way of obfuscating meaning, making the speaker sound more intelligent than they are. Take the guy on the tube who I hear most days: a businessman who wants everyone to know how powerful he is. Talking on his mobile, spouting corporate jargon at the top of his voice. I secretly suspect there’s nobody at the other end of the call and that the conversation is simply between the bloke and his own ego. To him in his own little word the natty words he’s throwing out are meaningful, boastful terms. To everyone outside his world they’re corporate clichés that make us want to hurl.

But in many instances, jargon is incredibly helpful and saves time. Think about your workplace, or a sport or leisure activity you enjoy. Within the confines of that world, there is language that you use that may be unintelligible (or at least not immediately obvious) to those outside but which means you are able to communicate with speed and efficiency to people who share your understanding. Jargon is useful! I am pro-jargon.

Think of it like this: A jargon word is like a suitcase. It is a compact, portable carry-all that helps us transport large amounts of meaning in one small package. If I use a jargon word, I may have a complex understanding of what I mean and what I don’t mean. If I were to stop and explain it, it might take me a couple of paragraphs to do so. But if I know that you share my understanding of all the different bits that make up that word, then I can simply hand over all those strands of meaning in one suitcase-like box and trust that it will be understood correctly.

However, if someone doesn’t know the word, or has different assumptions about its meaning to me, then when I use that word, it’s like I’m bashing them over the head with a receptacle rather than taking the time to unpack the suitcase and helping them appreciate all that’s contained within.

When I am preaching, 90% of the time I try to eradicate jargon, believing, as I do, that there are often better ways to express concepts so that everyone can understand. And I want to create as few barriers as possible, when people step into my world. It may take a bit longer to unpack the suitcase and lay all the elements out on the table, but it’s worth it.

But I say 90% of the time, because I also think entirely eradicating jargon from our church vocabulary is a mistake. If we so sanitise our language that we remove any kind of jargon, then we will not equip people to feed themselves from Scripture. The Bible contains technical language, which requires precise understanding. If we never use the word ‘justification’ for example, then people won’t have a clue what’s going on when they pick up Romans. They will never have heard the word. For the sake of discipleship we have a duty to help people understand biblical language.

So, if I am preaching and it is necessary to use a jargon word, perhaps because it appeared in the Bible passage that was read at the start of my talk, then there are two simple ways I might explain it:

  1. Use it and define it.

    If I have read a passage that includes a confusing word, or a word that is open to misinterpretation, then I might take a moment to stop and say “in the passage we just read, Jesus talks about x. That may not be a word you’re familiar with, but when it’s used in the Bible, this is what it means…” A simple, one sentence description may suffice. You open the suitcase, show what’s inside, and close the case again.

  2. Define it and use it.

    Sometimes I come at it from the other angle. If a word or concept is particularly difficult or unpopular, then I may take a while to give an apologetic for the ‘concept’ before introducing the ‘word.’ For example, I may take 5 minutes or so helping people to see, with some cultural observations and illustrations, that all of us have a tendency to operate from selfish motives, put ourselves above others, and contribute to the pain and brokenness that we experience in the world. Only once I’ve got people thinking, “oh that’s true, I guess I do do that” then I’m able to say “the word the Bible uses for this is sin.” If I’d gone straight in with “let me tell you what sin means” chances are I would have got people’s backs up from the beginning. But if I can get them to agree to the concept, they’re more likely to appreciate the word.

Whichever approach you use, if you’ve done it adequately, you can probably get away with using the jargon word throughout the rest of the talk, because you have ensured that there is a common understanding between you and your hearer. So in the 10% of cases where jargon can’t or shouldn’t be removed, you need to take the time to make it understandable and applicable.

So… a few questions for you:

  • What are the jargon words you tend to use without explanation?
  • Are you confident that everyone shares the same understanding about the meaning of those words as you?
  • Which of those words could be done away with entirely?
  • What words would it be valuable to keep and explain?
  • Can you come up with a short, single-sentence explanation to ‘use and define’ them?
  • And how would you take the longer route of ‘defining and using’ them?

Image: Suitcase Cabinet by Jonas Merian, used under CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

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