September 10, 2012

Say What You Mean: Avoiding Jargon

I have a lot of friends who are priests, pastors, seminarians, and self-proclaimed church nerds. I love these people, though if you get them together at a conference (or even at dinner) they can slip into speaking in church code. As Miguel Escobar pointed out in a recent blog post, every group has its own language and vocabulary. The problem is when it becomes jargon, and begins to obscure meaning and therefore to exclude others.

When I use the term “jargon,” I mean something different than specialized vocabulary. After thousands of years of history and tradition, the church has its own vocabulary (Eucharist, narthex, and chasuble, for example). This is fine, but we should make sure everyone has access to the glossary – whether by explaining what these words mean or even occasionally printing a glossary in the Sunday bulletin.

Jargon, on the other hand, are those vague and overused words and phrases that refer to an idea or set of ideas used only within the group.

I admit that jargon makes me particularly grumpy. For example, when I hear people use a term like “missional” in a community setting, without an explanation or context, I feel frustrated. There is nothing inherently wrong with this word, but its meaning is not clear to me, and I assume to most visitors.

Jargon excludes. This is why most of us don’t enjoy reading academic papers outside our own fields. They are full of phrases that only other academics really understand. It’s a problem when this happens in a church. You can talk about “open communion” in your vestry meetings or “the atonement” in your Bible study, but a visitor might be confused if you use these words in the announcements or a sermon without explanation or context. If we’re not careful, our internal phrases can cease to communicate and instead become a barrier to communication.

Another problem with jargon is that it can become a set of meaningless words. Language is a resource, and you can use it up. When you use a phrase too often, it becomes drained of meaning (in other words, a cliché). Which is why we should also be wary of using jargon even within our staff and vestry meetings.

These phrases can become ways of talking around issues rather than addressing them specifically. It may be easier say that you want to offer “radical hospitality” in a vestry meeting than to actually think about the specifics about what that requires, or say that we’re “living into the questions” as a way to put off addressing a difficult issue during Bible Study.

Every group develops it’s own language, it’s own clichés and jargon. It’s not always harmful (I actually like both the phrases I mention above, and the ideas they refer to), but can impede communication. As Jesus said, “Let your yes be yes and your no be no.” Whenever we can, we should speak as simply and directly as possible so that we can truly understand each other and welcome the stranger, who may not speak our language.