Words of Faith

Words of Faith: To get the meaning across, keep your words simple

CorrespondentJune 17, 2014 

I enjoy participating in realms outside of the church. I’ve spent time on the boards of several nonprofits and on a team for the federal Department of Corrections that looked at the treatment of women from arrest through incarceration. I was the only person on the team from outside the justice system.

I like learning about different areas of life and work.

I’m honored now to be sitting on a committee looking at health care literacy. I’m the only non-health care professional on this team. There is a steep learning curve for me, partly because I know the language of the church and not of health care. Yes, it’s all English, … but to me it is still a foreign language.

As I recently sat in a meeting, I paid close attention to the words being said and to the context of various phrases. It was not specifically medical language, but it was language of the health care system, and it reflected the language and work culture of this particular health care system. I worked hard to understand what was being communicated – rather than just what was being said – and to participate in helpful ways.

I started thinking about the language of the church. There are theological words common to the church – sin, for example – that were originally in common use but have since become reserved for religion. Some of those words are still in common use but perhaps mean different things when used within the church.

There are also words that are specific to denominations or traditions: elders, sessions and presbyteries are examples for Presbyterians. They are quite meaningless to people outside the Presbyterian family.

It is OK for health care folks to have their language. It provides communication shortcuts that they need. A challenge of this group is to make sure that the language used when dealing with folks outside of the health care profession, like patients, works. That is, what the group intends to communicate is what is actually understood by patients. Recently I heard a respiratory therapist repeating an unfamiliar term to a patient rather than using other words to communicate the same concept.

I think this is a challenge for folks in the church, as well. Do we use religious words and jargon that really don’t have much meaning for folks outside the church? Do we then expect people to understand and respond to those words? Do we assume that people are rejecting the church when they really are not connecting with our jargon?

I work hard to avoid religious jargon and even good, historic religious words. But I don’t always remember, and I don’t always do it well. I try to explain our denominational language when meeting with folks who are interested in learning more about our congregation, but I don’t always cover all of the vocabulary.

The health care folks are realizing that they have not truly communicated clearly if the other person does not understand what was said.

I wonder what it would look like if we worked harder to choose language to really communicate about the love, grace and forgiveness of God, and the model that Jesus gave us for how to live. Jesus himself didn’t use religious jargon, and he even rejected some of the common religious jargon of the day.

What might happen if we tried to follow that example?

The Rev. Dr. Joanne Sizoo is pastor at Grace Presbyterian Church in Fort Mill. Contact her at jsizoo@gracewired.org.

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