Will churches ever escape the use of jargon?

I wonder at what point we decided it was helpful to incorporate our own, made up, Christian jargon into church? Do we not have enough legitimate biblical and theological words to explain without adding our own phrases to the plethora of things to make comprehensible? There seems to be something inherently odd in seeking to use the most accessible bible translation such that, in the spirit of Tyndale, it could be understood by the modern day plough boy whilst simultaneously peppering our churches with newly created, somewhat meaningless words and phrases.

I accept that certain words and phrases will inevitably be used which, to the average outsider, are obscure at best. Now, I am not an advocate of removing words or phrases from usage simply because somebody may not fully comprehend its meaning. Were we always to do this, we would find ourselves unable to use any words of more than one syllable (and some not even that long)! In reality, many of these words are biblical and carry a specific theological meaning. Rather than simply do away with them, we would do well to employ them and explain their meaning or, as most thinking adults would tend to do, find out what they mean ourselves. So, whilst there is clearly an issue with using accessible words and phrases, the answer lies not in removing them altogether but in adequately explaining what they mean.

Churches have always contended with words and phrases alien to the unchurched. For the last 400 years, we overcame this problem through adequate explanation and meaningful application of the Bible. As the Bible was preached and applied its meaning became clear. The only jargon to contend with were specific words and phrases from the biblical text itself. Words that potentially needed explanation but carried significant meaning were thus not glossed over or removed altogether. Of course, there was always the principle of the perspicuity of scripture which contended that, despite certain difficulties, the Bible was indeed comprehensible to the average man. Nevertheless, this is not really the problem. The issue now lies in the fact we have created our own jargon which is ultimately meaningless, which replace other existent words that already carry the same meaning. It is one thing to have to explain specific biblical or theological phrases, it is quite another to create our own words and phrases adding unnecessarily to the problem!

For example, churches seem desperate to add mottos, statements and sound bites to almost everything. It is as if every aspect of a Christian’s life must have some attached phrase to describe what other people simply call ‘life’. In some cases, phrases appear to be employed to grant significance to what would otherwise be mundane, ordinary things. We use phrases such as ‘intentional living’ to refer to, what was once termed, ‘Christian witness’ and which never carried much more significance than simply going about your everyday life. But now our living must be ‘intentional’. One thing life is not for the person living it, is intentional. We may argue that God intended it and, in most cases, our parents’ intended it. But the suggestion that we can intentionally ‘do life’ is a nonsense concept.

If by ‘intentional living’ we really mean living life as a Christian, it begs the question why do we not simply say what we mean in plain English? It strikes me, to ascribe this sort of phrase to mundane things is to imbue them with a sense of significance that is otherwise lacking from the thing itself. To simply state ‘go about living your life normally’ does nothing to make an individual feel as though they are doing something for the Lord. That is not to say this is valueless and our ordinary lives should not be lived for the Lord. However, to ascribe significance to the mundane and ordinary allows us to feel we are doing something significant  when, in truth, much of the time we are just living our life as we otherwise would. I wonder if the key to this is to compare the lives of those ‘living intentionally’ with those non-Christians who simply ‘live’. Would their lives be wildly different or, would the major distinction be church on Sunday and the occasional discussion about God?

Equally strange is the move from words rooted in the Greek euangelion (meaning ‘Good News’ and translated ‘Gospel’) toward words not particularly mentioned in the biblical text. Our words ‘evangelical’ and ‘evangelism’ come from this root. However, we seem keen to replace these phrases with words such as ‘missional’. The fact that we use particular words to refer to evangelistic outreach is not, in and of itself, odd. What is odd, is that we already have words, rooted in the biblical text, to denote these activities. Championing words such as ‘missional’ does nothing to take us beyond the terms ‘evangelical’ and ‘evangelism’ – they mean the same thing and are equally meaningless to outsiders. As terms, they seem to add nothing to our understanding of what it is we are ultimately trying to achieve. At best, it takes us slightly further away from something rooted in biblical terminology.

Perhaps the move toward being ‘missional’ is intended to refer to something we should be doing as a continual part of our lives as opposed to ‘evangelism’ which, rightly or wrongly, carries connotations of going somewhere for a designated period of time, pointedly sharing the gospel and then going home. The issue with the former is that it often leads to the same conclusion as those who feel all days are special thus we don’t celebrate Christmas and birthdays (see ‘The obligatory Christmas post…’). Ultimately, if all days are special then, in reality, no days are special. Similarly, if we are continually ‘on mission’ this often leads to not being ‘on mission’ at all. Of course, the problem with the latter view is that our evangelistic duty is often measured in involvement and attendance at specific events. Some undisclosed number of meetings attended allows us to mentally consider our evangelistic duty fulfilled. Nevertheless, both terms centre around the same principle and, in reality, the new words require as much explanation as the old and are not really any clearer.

Much of this fascination with new terms and phrases smacks of the same sort of meaningless jargon replete in the business world. We often present our churches as though they were selling product and service. We litter our websites with pointless phrases such as ‘Gospel intentionality’, ‘doing life’ and ‘missional living’. They sound great, but what do they actually mean? Much of the time, once these phrases are explained, they turn out to mean the same as other words and phrases we already use. Surely there are enough misunderstandings over specific biblical terms and concepts to occupy us for a lifetime. Why, when scripture itself is so often misunderstood, do we think it wise to add our own layer of jargon and terminology which needs equal explanation?

However, behind all of this, the real issue at hand is not terminology. In fact, this terminology is symptomatic of a wider problem. It seems there is an intentional imbuing of significance and value to what was previously considered ordinary and usual. When in the past we met our friends and shared our lives, there was no sense of evangelistic effort or ‘doing something for the Lord’. This was just living one’s life as one would otherwise live it. Naturally, as a Christian, whatever opportunities to discuss one’s faith arose one would try to take. Searching for such opportunities is important and we should, of course, be looking for any and every opportunity to share our faith with those around us. This, however, was never deemed one’s evangelistic duty. Evangelism always involved a specific ‘going out’ with a definite intention to share the gospel with those who would otherwise not hear it.

The sea change has come in viewing one’s ordinary life as evangelistically significant. By including life in general as part of our evangelistic outreach, we have made it very easy to dress up doing nothing at all. In going to the pub with friends, something many would be inclined to do anyway, we can pat ourselves on the back as having done some evangelism. We can readily change Christ’s clarion call to ‘go’ into one of expecting opportunities to come to me. The problem with this is that the only people who will be reached are those who come into contact with Christians already. Had the apostles taken the same approach, the gospel would have never left Jerusalem! Many churches now dress up doing ordinary things as the fulfilment of the great commission and, unsurprisingly, we find many actually doing nothing at all.


  1. Hi Andrew – Thanks for your comments.

    Of course, I accept words and phrases change over time. Nevertheless, to suggest that phrases such as 'gospel intentionality' are not jargon seems difficult to maintain. To the average person outside a church, and dare I say to many inside the church, phrases such as 'gospel intentionality' and 'missional' do not mean a great deal. They are buzzwords used within certain churches, and not within others, and cannot really escape being labelled jargon.

    In respect to your second point, I concede the way people behave has changed over time. However, I don't particularly see a need to reclassify phrases from the euangelion root to deal with that. I accept the means of sharing the gospel may have changed, not unnecessarily so, but the gospel itself has not nor has the ultimate goal of sharing it with those who haven't heard. I don't really see how creating new phrases achieves very much beyond adding another term that needs to be explained to the Christian vocabulary.

    I concede much of your third point. I accept that many churches in the past did evangelism deficiently. I suspect you are right – the tendency was to shy away from evangelism by relationship (though, many do/did emphasise one's general 'Christian Witness' and do/did mean share your lives with those around you). Perhaps it is in reaction to this, but the tendency now is for churches to shy away from any cold-contact style (though I am sure many still do this too).

    I don't see that 'evangelism' needs to be revoked as a term and replaced with another phrase (not really rooted in the biblical text) in order to address a previous generation's deficiencies. That the church in the past did not necessarily 'do' evangelism quite as they ought (though I would venture that many did), does not suggest that the word 'evangelism' has now lost it's meaning and must be replaced with something else. Nor does it mean their means of evangelism was entirely wrong and cannot be continued. Rather, we need to discern what was deficient and how we can address those deficiencies. Does this warrant new terminology? I wouldn't say so.

    You suggest the best 'missional' churches do not say evangelism is going to the pub (I am sure that is true). Equally, the best churches who emphasised evangelism in the past did not solely insist on cold-contact evangelism and children's works alone. I think your position here is as much a straw man as mine. I suspect neither of us are using best-case-scenario examples!

    I am certainly not claiming the 'old' way was somehow the best, or only, way to evangelise. That is evidently not the case and, as you suggest, the course of time will warrant new means of sharing the gospel. What I am saying is that there seems to be a sea change in which some have thrown the baby out with the bathwater.

    I am quite sure many 'missional' churches do not consider going down the pub with one's mates as one's sole evangelistic duty. However, there are a significant number within such churches who do not appear to do much else and use such phrases and terminology to justify their lack of any sort of effort. Do churches that shy away from such terms have the same issue? Of course. There are, and always will be, people who shy away from evangelism because it makes them uncomfortable or who are drawn to particular means because they find them easier.

    My concern is that we don't allow an emphasis on 'sharing our lives' to simply become a means of not really sharing the gospel at all. I am not advocating an 'old' way of doing things. I am just saying there are things that have been done in the past that can be useful now. I accept relationships are a valid and useful means of sharing the gospel but that can be a handy way of people not really doing anything at all. Often this new terminology seems to go hand in hand.

  2. Thanks for your encouragement to avoid jargon – a constant need for us all.

    I have some questions though about the particular target you have chosen.

    a) The words people use to describe the same thing change over time. This is neither unique to the church nor a bad thing, simply a product of human culture. If people removed all church specific jargon but otherwise spoke in exactly the same way we did 50 years ago we'd still sound pretty odd. So calling something “gospel intentionality” isn't necessarily jargon.

    b) My experience as a pastor is that people do not simply behave how they did 50 (or even 20) years ago in terms of personal relationships for all sorts of reasons to do with work, technology, changing family situations etc. This 'new generation' requires a new set of words to frame the implications of the call of the gospel on their lives, just as they have different vocabulary from their parents for every other aspect of their lives – work, home, technology etc.

    c) My experience in churches of older people is that many (most?) did their 'evangelistic duty' (itself a phrase quite a long way from any biblical description of the Christian life) on the street, in the youth group and with their own kids but very rarely with their peers – whether friends or colleagues. Indeed in some churches in my own city people are keen to do kids' work precisely because they are much more comfortable evangelising people they can tell to sit still and be quiet than those who can answer back or ask hard questions. The difference between then and now was that until fairly recently in the UK it was possible to fill churches with such 'cold' contacts, now it isn't and the deficiencies of that earlier generation are being exposed (as, no doubt, the deficiencies of “missional church” will be exposed in the future).

    d) Your post shoots at a straw man. The clearest and best exponents of 'missional church' do not think going to the pub with your mates is evangelism. They are very clear, in fact, that it is not evangelism. But it may well be a good way to get to do some evangelism; and evangelical churches have historically been stuffed with men who would never consider going near a pub with colleagues, not because they really thought it would be wrong, but because it would make them uncomfortable or, as one said to me recently “I just don't really like non-Christians.”

    None of this is to say that younger Christian people are any better at doing evangelism that their parents. But I'm pretty sure they're not much worse.

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