Have you ever noticed that every industry has its own lingo? Sometimes if you live around it long enough, it becomes possible to fake knowledge of technical language without having any practical knowledge of the terms whatsoever. I had a job for two years in which I became adept at describing the machinery we sold, including their many various options, but nevertheless, I still had no idea what the purpose of the products were.
Most subcultures—whether fandoms, hobbyists, or trades—could have conversations in front of other speakers of their native language without giving away the content of their communication. Christianity is one of the largest subcultures in the world, and it also contains many subcultures of its own. The way we Christians relate to the unique language that pervades our society has a huge impact on the development of every other part of Christianity.
As obvious as the statement might seem, words mean things. How you define the words you use makes a huge difference in what you intend to communicate to others. I feel that we often overlook this issue when it comes to sharing our beliefs, both with those who share our religion and those that may not come from the same religious background. Also, some of the people that you dialogue with may have no preconceived notion as to the definition of words based on religious experience. Have you ever had a conversation in which you were convinced you were on the same page as someone else only to find out later that you were mistaken?
For example, in Spanish class once, I was supposed to translate a story from Spanish into English. I at once translated the word bebe as a form of the verb to drink and was very confused as to why this story centered on a beverage and why the woman was so worried that a wolf had taken a drink. After I consulted a dictionary and discovered that bebe also means “baby” in Spanish, my perspective on the story was considerably altered.
Take for instance the word love. Dictionary.com has no fewer than twenty-one different definitions for the noun, but English speakers usually rely on context and guesswork to determine which definition another person is referring to when they use the word. It might be better if we reverted to Greek and had seven words with distinct meanings, but in English all of those words translate to our word love.
It concerns me that Christian terminology does not carry a uniform method of defining. We often take for granted that our audience has the same understanding of a term as we do. It has come to the point that we cannot use terms we have taken for granted in Christian culture without first precisely explaining them. If the terminology that we use to describe something changes meaning, it will not take long for our original intent to be lost.
Many interpretations of what a Christian even is are radically inconsistent with each other. One person might characterize themselves as a Christian based on the fact that they attend a church or that their parents did. Another might stake a claim that believing Jesus is the son of God is what makes him a Christian. The rich young ruler of Luke 18 asked Jesus how to obtain eternal life. In this instance, Jesus ends the conversation asking the man to surrender all he had and follow after him.
Another example of something that I have seen shifted between definitions is spiritual growth. The essence of spiritual growth is exhibiting more of the Fruit of the Spirit as listed in Galatians 5:22-23: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. A different definition I have seen spread is one where a person can measure his spiritual maturity by the standard of how many church songs he knows or how strictly he can adhere to his chosen religious ritual.
One of the specifically religious terms used often in churches is blessing. I think that if your only exposure to the word was through religious television, your idea of the definition would probably be “cold, hard cash.” This definition leans heavily on assuming the Bible always means material gain when it uses the term riches or prosperity. As explained in Romans 2:4, however, it is using the word riches to describe God’s kindness.
There is a bevy of words that have distinctly religious meanings, and there are always new buzzwords in religious circles. Just in the last decade, terms like seeker-sensitive, community, and relevant have become common descriptors of what you might find within church doors. Every one of these terms is looked upon differently by different people. To one person, seeker-sensitive means using new-fangled technology, like sound systems and PowerPoint; to another, seeker-sensitive means purging any dogma or doctrine that might make anyone uncomfortable.
I encourage you to clarify the definitions of the terms you are using. Consider the possibility that others who filter the significance of what they are hearing through their own experiences might come to an alternate conclusion about what they think is being said. Do not be afraid to challenge the people around you about what they mean when they use phrases that have multiple interpretations. Be a word nerd and carry a Webster’s dictionary everywhere. (Okay, I was just kidding on that last one.)