Churchy language: should it stop?

What does going to a big, nerdy card-game tournament have to do with churchy language? In my mind at least, quite a bit!

churchy language

I’ve always been interested in words and language. I’ve written about it on here a couple of times, but I was struck on Saturday by the immense power of language to make people feel deeply included, or utterly excluded.

Inclusive language

On Saturday I embraced the nerd in me and indulged a hobby (a card game called Magic: The Gathering) by going to a big prerelease event for a new block of cards that’s being released. It was a fantastic day in a room with over 100 other people, all with the same interest, all getting new cards and playing with them. Awesome!

I only knew one person there, but I spoke with lots of people. We all shared the same language. We all knew the words and what they meant. This was one exchange with a guy I met called Andy:

Andy: “What format do you normally play?”
Me: “Mostly just casual Modern games with my mate. Occasionally a bit of Commander, I want to get into that a bit more. We don’t invest enough money for Standard or competitive Modern. You?”
Andy: “There’s a group of us that Draft quite often. That’s my favourite. Theros has been great for drafting.”
Me: “Cool!”

Immediately, I felt at home, included, as though we had a bond. Because we could both not only use language with which we are so familiar, but be understood as we do so. It put us at ease. It was only later that we got to know a bit more about each other. But the bond was already established.

The danger of inclusion

So shared vocabulary can be a powerful force for inclusion and unity. It’s like being somewhere that speaks a language you don’t speak and you bump into someone who speaks your tongue – glorious!

churchy language mtg
My event pack. I didn’t dominate much, though.

There is a big danger here, though. The flip side of making people feel included is that others feel utterly excluded.

If a non-MtG player had walked into that room, they’d have been lost. There was no attempt made to explain all the words and terms, no introductory tutorials in how to play. Nothing. That’s perfectly fair, since it is not an intro event. It is aimed at people who already play.

It was a deeply inclusive event for those already sold on it, but not a welcoming event for people who aren’t.

As much as I like Magic: the Gathering (and I really do!), I know there’s more to life. This post isn’t really about that. It has triggered my thinking about Christians and churchy language. We have plenty of vocabulary and jargon that we use without even realising it. Are we always aware what effects this has?

Churchy language: inclusive and welcoming?

Just like at my event on Saturday, I’m sure churchy language it has two effects:

  1. Creating a bond between those who are already ‘insiders’ and know the language
  2. Alienating those who are ‘outsiders’, don’t know the language but are interested

(I don’t normally use that language of ‘insider’/’outsider’ as it’s a horrible dichotomy, and am using it only to describe people’s relationship with the  churchy language.)

This leave me with a quandary. To be sensitive to the ‘outsider’, perhaps we should stop using churchy language and never use any words that aren’t just part of the rest of the world’s dictionary. But then we miss out on the opportunity for a greater depth of unity among believers (and, as I’ve suggested elsewhere, a stunting of our own discipleship). It’s also hard to engage with the Bible if we throw out all Christian ‘jargon’ because a lot of it comes from the Bible!

But the opposite – “Church isn’t for ‘them’, it’s for us, and if ‘they’ want to join in it must be on our terms” – doesn’t seem to ring true with the radical inclusiveness of Jesus.

I end, then, not with a conclusion, but a question, because I want to hold onto both – depth of inclusion AND welcome to others.

My question about churchy language: does anyone have a way forward? Any thoughts, drop a comment below.


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  • Will Trevitt

    Is MtG jargon? You managed to slip it into your post and I almost didn’t notice because I work in a world where Three Letter Acronyms are everywhere, but I knew what you meant because you had already explained the term (well written it out in full). Which started me thinking down the following path (which is as a consequence not 100% thought through):
    Often we use jargon not for inclusivity or exclusivity but efficiency, imagine if we had to explain grace (say) any time we mentioned it in a sermon, next week’s sermon would have to be cancelled whilst we finished last week’s explanation; but grace is often not the central topic that is being talked about, it just comes up whilst we witter on about something else (OK you don’t witter). So people don’t need the full explanation at that point, they need just enough to be able to understand that word and its concept in the context it is being used in at that moment. More significantly if they then hear that word used again they are an “insider” when it comes to that word, the exclusive of three lines ago might by now be inclusive. This leads me to three points:
    Use Christianese but not too much (or you talk sounds more like a glossary)
    Explain as you go along balancing being brief with actually getting enough meaning across (this is the hard one)
    If you’ve explained jargon, use it again (but in the same context or you’re just being unhelpful)
    At least that might be a good start.

  • Graham Criddle

    I think Will is absolutely right in what he is saying and I’ll add a few things.

    Sometimes it is useful to spend considerable time expanding on “Christianese” words for the benefit of everyone – whether church regulars or not. Once a month, at the moment, in our morning service we are looking at some of the “big words” we use – this Sunday we will be looking at redemption and trying to explore what it means.

    But I think it is also true that if people come into a church for the first time they are looking for it to be church – even if they don’t fully know what that means. If they are invited to an “introduction to church” event then they could reasonably expect things to be spelled out for them. If they come to an event for the initiated – such as the event you described above – there is probably a prior understanding that they won’t understand everything but so long as they know what is expected of them and made welcome that’s probably ok.
    And the importance of knowing what is expected of them is vital – when we take up our offering I try and ensure that it is clear that this is for those who are regularly in the church, not for visitors although they are welcome to contribute if they like. Similarly if we get to a point in the service when people will be standing up I make it clear that this is happening and invite people to join in (giving them the option to stay seated if they prefer).
    I think / hope that this gives people a sense of confidence which is as important as understanding every word which is spoken on their first visit

  • Gavin Crowley

    There are a few words, like ‘agape’, which if they would only take hold in the wider world would make life in the public square so much easier. Perhaps also Tsedek, kairos(thick-time)…?

    • http://limpingintotruth.blogspot.co.uk/ Dave Criddle

      Thanks for looking round the blog, Gavin! Agreed, if those words took hold in the wider world it would be wonderful! My question here is how much they can also alienate if they have not taken hold yet.

      • Gavin Crowley

        I wonder can poetry help here. Thick-time as a translation of kairos kind of gets the meaning of the word without being too hung up on accuracy. Most people have experienced time moving at different speeds and can intuitively get the idea.
        I’ve yet to see an unwieldy translation of agape/charity that people would just get intuitively. Quite a few songs out there use the phrase ‘one love’ which seems close to brotherly-love. Perhaps popular music can help?

        Poetry can of course be alienating too. But a well crafted phrase can sit nicely on the tongue and be evident. I wonder has someone clever already coined them and left them out there to be discovered by us?

        • Gavin Crowley

          Sorry I’ve only seen unwieldy translations… What I really wanted there was the word ‘wieldy’

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