Bad language (1): forgetting the journey

I wrote a post on here last week called ‘Learning the Lingo’. I suggested we pick up vocabulary about the things we care about. Sport, TV, hobbies, professions – they all have technical language. If we care enough, we pick up the relevant lingo.

I also suggested the same is true for Christians. If our faith matters to us, we will grow in our understanding of it, and that means learning and using the language of our faith.

But that’s not the full picture. The pursuit and use of language can be exceedingly damaging. In my next three posts, I want to explore three things to avoid with our language. First up…

Forgetting the journey

I know a fair amount of theological language. I had to pick it up while I was studying, and a lot of it I still use in some way. Lots I don’t. But every theological term I have in my head was once not in my head. I had to learn it at some point. Whether it was as simple as ‘Bible’ or something more extravagant like ‘pneumatology’, at some point I went from not knowing what it meant to having some idea.

I have come on a journey, and so has everyone. We are all at different points on that journey. And we don’t all have to get to the same place – there is no fixed goal. But we often have very short memories, and start using terms and concepts as soon as we know them, assuming others do too. We forget the journey we’re on, and forget that others are on one too.

Whether it’s in a sermon, a Bible study, a casual conversation, a blog(!) or wherever, we can assume others are equipped with the same vocab we are. They might be. They might not be. But we shouldn’t assume.

Here’s the thing: it can be really damaging. It makes people feel stupid. It makes people question their commitment. It makes people feel as if their faith is deficient. Or it just confuses them and acts as a barrier to growth. It can be so exclusive and harmful.

Being careful

This is something that those who regularly preach or do similar things probably need to pay attention to the most. But it is not exclusive to them – everyone needs to be careful.

I try to be so conscious of this when I teach or speak (particularly in public where there isn’t always the chance for people to ask for clarification), just because I know how small I sometimes felt in lectures at university where every sixth word felt like a foreign language. We need to be careful we don’t forget our journey. We need to treat people at a different point on that journey in a way that will help to build them up instead of knocking them down.

I think there are little things we can do to help avoid this pitfall:

  • Deliberately remembering when it was we picked up certain terms so we don’t fall into the trap of thinking we always knew them.
  • Being careful to consider the background and context of the person/people we are speaking to, so we neither patronise nor speak over their heads.
  • Explaining terms and phrases that we know might confuse.
  • Trying to create a culture where saying ‘I don’t know’ is not a sign of weakness or stupidity, but a sign of desire to grow. We can start by admitting our own ignorance.
  • Asking people to be honest and tell us if the way we speak is exclusive, alienating or off-putting.

On that note, please please be honest and tell me if the way I speak is exclusive, alienating or off-putting.


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