Why Religious Jargon Isn’t All Bad

Charles Kiser —  May 20, 2016 — 3 Comments

noun: jargon; plural noun: jargons
  1. special words or expressions that are used by a particular profession or group and are difficult for others to understand.

Bad news and good news: Christian jargon is inevitable. Language is a fundamental component of culture, and so the culture of any faith community will be defined by its language.

That’s bad news because some religious jargon is worthless and vapid. It makes Christians look ridiculous, like the video above. And it makes outsiders feel like they are all the more outside, because they can’t understand what’s being said.

The good news is that language is a major asset in spiritual formation. Language opens up new vistas of imagination for us about how to follow Jesus. Mike Breen’s Building a Discipling Culture is a great example of such formative language.

Further, outsiders aren’t always as resistant to learning new language as we might assume.

Think about Starbucks. Their language isn’t user-friendly at all. Who knew what Venti was before Starbucks? But people are open to it because they want to be invited to enter a different world — the world of the Italian cafe.

Quinn Fox suggests that the church “might learn about corporate worship language from the language of coffee. Starbucks realizes, it seems, that a distinctive menu that people need to learn is not a bad thing.

So we shouldn’t try to avoid language (because we can’t), but rather think intentionally about the jargon we use. Two questions that might help us:

  1. Is our language helpful? Does it give us a lens for seeing the world and ourselves as followers of Jesus, or is it empty and meaningless?
  2. Are we hospitable with our language? What makes jargon jargon is that it’s difficult to understand. When we use different language in our worship gatherings and conversations, are we sensitive to who is hearing it? Do we explain what it means to outsiders and invite them into our world?

Maybe you’re wondering if Christians should only use Bible words to talk about Bible things. Trouble is, the first Christians didn’t even do that. They created new language to describe what they were experiencing that drew from the broader cultural warehouse. For example, the word church (ecclesia) wasn’t a “Christian” word until Christians decided to borrow it from their broader culture; it was a political word to describe a political assembly. Do you see the imagination that word opened up for the early Christians? They saw themselves as a political movement — God’s kingdom moving into the world over against the kingdoms of the world.

Please leave a comment! What are the challenges to being purposeful in our use of language?


Charles Kiser


I’m a pastor, missionary, and contextual theologian in Dallas, Texas. I’m committed to equipping and coaching Christians to start fresh expressions of Christian community in Dallas County — communities of hospitality, inclusion, justice, and healing.

3 responses to Why Religious Jargon Isn’t All Bad

    Paul McMullen May 20, 2016 at 1:05 pm

    This post really blessed me Charles. 😉

    This is one of those topics where we’ve likely overreacted to something that needed fixing. It was our inhospitality that was the problem, not that we had unique language. However, the realization that “Bible-words” made sense in their original context – aka, Gospel was simply Good News (about Caesar!) – should push us to take some church language and continue to translate it into current vocabulary. But that’s different than saying we can use specific language to talk about what’s happening among us and ask people to learn it.


      Hallelujah brother Paul. 😉 There is some healthy tension, for sure, between connecting religious language to culture maintaining the historic language of the church. Perhaps it’s both/and. I think we’ll be ok regardless if we are hospitable (high explanation) with our language. Even culturally connected language needs explanation because it could be mistaken for its popular connotations in broader culture instead of something distinctly Christian.


    I went to the Youtube channel of Tripp and Tyler https://www.youtube.com/user/dontbethatguyfilms/videos?sort=p&flow=grid&view=0

    They have many other videos attempt to find the humor in the common expressions that we use.

    The one about parents is comical and sad in a way. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lxwSbKxkPXU

    So that is the jargon or idioms or sayings that parents use.

    Note that in the USA there are more than 800 thousand international students studying at colleges in the USA http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2013/11/12/record-number-of-international-students-studying-in-u-s/

    Imagine the kinds of idioms that they encounter that were not found in the formal text books when they learned English overseas. Some examples and explanations include Hit the books, Hit the sack, Twist someone’s arm, Sit tight, Pitch in, Go cold turkey, etc. There are 20 common ones explained here http://www.fluentu.com/english/blog/essential-english-idioms/ There are hundreds explained here http://www.learn-english-today.com/idioms/idioms_proverbs.html
    And that site might help parents explain idioms to their children.

    When I had my dentures made at Baylor Dental school 4 years ago it was a student that did all the work. But a professor checked the work at each stage. While I was in the chair they used the jargon of dentistry to communicate. They were using technical language to clearly communicate with each other. Then the student and professor would give me a kind of translation.

    Every discipline has technical language. This includes physics, chemistry, engineering, computer programing, teaching, and more. When I worked the the seminar at the Help Desk of the student computer lab for 12 years I gradually learned the technical language of theology, missions, preaching and more. Special words are necessary in every field.

    Note that most who attend Storyline are college graduates. They have had professional job where they needed to learn technical language and idioms. They know how to look up terms they do not understanding about health, fitness, nutrition, current events, etc.

    If we were doing major outreaches to prisons where the inmates were not high school graduates or to international students then jargon could be a serious issue.

    In conclusion I challenge anyone to communicate the jargon in the video into simpler language that is equally as understood. We swim around continually in an ocean of language that we are rarely aware of yet it is children and international students that are continually making sense of our words.

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