One of the most important ways we include people is by dropping insider language.
Within any particular subculture, such as the medical profession or among sports fanatics, insider talk makes sense. Jargon is a kind of short-hand that makes conversation more fluid. I get it. Everyone is on the same page, speaking from the same dictionary, and that works.
But what about when your group exists to include people who are not part of your group? That is the case with the church of Jesus: we have been given the job of including “outsiders”–people who have not previously identified as following Jesus–in the life of our community. If we actually want to include outsiders, then we must include them from the very start by dropping insider talk, or (second-best) at least taking the time to explain the meaning of the short-hand words we are using.
I’ve learned this through failure. I remember sitting with a friend years ago, trying to mentor him and encourage him, when he finally said, “Tom, please be patient with me. I don’t get half of what you’re saying. You use words I’ve never heard and don’t understand.” Folks, that was my fault, not his. All my theological and Christian jargon, comfortable to me, was not helping me do what Jesus had told me to do. So I started breaking down the big words and simply stating what they mean in ways that outsiders, or new insiders, could understand. I don’t do it perfectly, but I do try to make my language more understandable to the people I’m passionate to reach. And it’s not about dumbing down the message; it’s about actually conveying one.
My everyday conversations have become more accessible, but it’s my preaching that I’ve worked the hardest to change. Believing that our worship gatherings are a crucial time when outsiders (non-church people) begin to be included, I use everyday, common words in my preaching. I avoid Christian cliches (sometimes called “Christianese”, which is itself a “Christianese”!), long theological terms, terms that have a long Christian history but are no longer known culturally, as well as words known only to the literate few. Sometimes I can’t avoid it. For example, I’m currently preaching through the book of Revelation, and while I’ve managed to avoid the word “eschatological” (meaning the study of last things), I’ve had to lean into the meaning of the word “apocalypse” (meaning “revelation”, not some catastrophic event) because of its centrality to the book and because of its helpfulness in explaining the Revelation . . . er . . . the Apocalypse of Jesus Christ. When I have to use a word that is longer or lesser known, I take time to explain it. I don’t always succeed; I know that. For example, I’m fairly confident I used the word “Messianic” last Sunday without explanation, and I know there’s people who didn’t know what that meant!
A few days ago, in a group conversation reflecting on people’s experience in our church, I heard something encouraging. An elderly man, who is himself a new insider who came to trust Jesus within the last year, said, “I like how this church uses everyday language so I understand what’s going on.” That’s a win, folks.
While I know that there are people who will defend the importance of theological terms and their use in our common gatherings, I think others who agree with the need to drop these terms in certain contexts face one particular challenge: we’ve used these words so often and for so long that we are no longer aware of them and how foreign they are to most people. Growing in our awareness of our insider talk takes work and self-reflection, as well as candid conversations with others in our church about how we can become more welcoming to new people among us. Remember, it’s all about including people and helping them find and follow Jesus.
So let me ask you:
What “insider” words do you tend to use without thinking?
What ways have you made your language more accessible without sacrificing depth of conversation?