Shining Like Stars Online: Avoid Jargon

Written by: Dani Nichols
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When I entered journalism school, one of the first lessons I learned was “don’t use jargon”. Webster’s Dictionary defines jargon as: “the vocabulary, peculiar to a particular trade, profession, or group, writing that one does not understand, or language that is vague in meaning.”

Typically, as young reporters, we ran into jargon when interviewing medical or legal professionals, and we would have to ask for clarification on the long words and convoluted phrases they threw at us. Now that I read and write more in the Christian arena, however, I’ve realized something slightly unsettling: Christians have jargon, and we use it liberally, without ever thinking of whom we might confuse or distance by our language.

Think about these terms: “redeemed”, “atoning sacrifice”, “led by the Spirit”, “having a peace about it”, “fruits of the Spirit”, “trusting in God’s providence”. Now, without familiarity with certain denominations or exposure to the Christian faith, many of these phrases and terms are complete jargon to many people. Because these terms are even confusing within the church walls, it’s important that when we write we take the time to carefully define our terms and give parameters for our language.

Consider this: someone writes a blog-post telling about a recent life-change, and she describes it as “God’s calling on her life” without any explanation of what she means. Many people won’t have any idea what she’s saying and might simply write it off as “Christianese” ruining an excellent opportunity for her to make an impact on their lives. Others will assume that she heard a literal voice of God booming from on high, or that she has had a major spiritual awakening. Others will imagine that she simply had a gut feeling about what God might want for her, and still others will think that a pastor or elder must have prophesied over her and told her what to do.

The truth is, any of these possibilities could be true, or none of them could be, and she could have an entirely different interpretation of what “God’s calling” means. Because we are not careful with our language, we leave the door open for miscommunication, misunderstanding and bad theology to run wild. The greatest danger here may not be the people who don’t understand her meaning at all, but those who assume that because this is a common phrase, they know precisely what she means by it. Just because we’ve heard many people write and talk about God’s calling doesn’t mean that we’ve ever heard it explained, and we could very easily be led astray simply because the writer doesn’t take time to define her terms.

Ephesians 4:29 says, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” Many people believe this is a simple admonition against swearing, but it seems to me that there is more we can learn. Christianity is not simply a litany of “Thou Shalt Nots” but also teaches us what to do – how to live, love, speak and write to the world in an attractive way. If we want to live out this command and strive to let our readers to benefit from our words, it’s rather essential that they understand them.

As I said before, working as a reporter made me learn quickly how to explain difficult questions in simple ways, and I was taught that we were gate-keepers of media, entrusted with it’s readability and quality. In just a few short years, however, the media landscape has changed, and nearly anyone can quickly and poorly write whatever they like to a large audience. It’s beneficial because there are more resources available, but it has a downside: since everyone has a Facebook account or a blog and people frequently post flighty remarks, we start to believe that thoughtfulness and tasteful language is less important than it used to be. Our beliefs start to take on the appearance of millisecond soundbites, and we lose our effectiveness in the marketplace of ideas, because we can’t articulate our meaning.

A few years ago, I went through a Bible study about social justice and helping people in need. One of the main points the study made was how “poverty is not all material” and how poverty in relationships is often a precursor to more material hardships. I think that we can take that lesson even one step farther and note that poverty can occur in logic and thought as well. How many materially wealthy people have we all known who cannot articulate their beliefs or give reasons for their choices?

You might be wondering how to do this, or thinking that I’m asking for an impossible ideal – how can we possibly define every term we use? This is where the wisdom of Colossians 4:5-6 comes in, which says: “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity.  Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.”

The short answer is that we won’t always know if our audience completely understands our language. However, we can endeavor to communicate as clearly as possible, and avoid using jargon-like terms without explanation. In order to make sure our blog-posts, Facebook chatter and online life is gracious and “seasoned with salt” we have to think about the “flavor” of our words, how we communicate our message, and whether or not our stories are easy for our readers to meditate on and ingest. After all, if we are writing in a public place, we are not writing for ourselves, but for our reader. Precision in our language, although it sounds time-consuming and difficult, is critical to getting our message out and understood.

If we are not willing to break through the poverty of thought that is so rampant in our society, why should the world give any credence to what we say? Many people see through our unwillingness to break through our own jargon, and shake their head cynically at our faith, because it remains too hard to understand. We have a very real and substantial relationship with the God of the universe – why would we make that so hard for people outside our walls to grasp hold of?

So, again, as I have written throughout this “Shining Like Stars” series, I’m asking you, Christians, to be conscious of your calling. We cannot be satisfied with easy answers and heard-it-all-before jargon. Think of yourself as a reporter, telling the world about our faith, and writing so that everyone can read and understand. We have to be willing to confront the poverty of thought and definitions if we want to have an online light that shines.


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