Articles on preaching blogs like this one commonly focus on how to develop meaningful content that your parishioners or audience will benefit from learning. Once you have developed theologically sound content, though, you face a different set of choices about how to deliver that content—and one of those choices that often gets overlooked is that of the level of technical language employed to communicate your content. Do big words and accurate theological nomenclature help you communicate your content to a broader audience? Or do they get in the way of your audience understanding the nuggets of truth you want to teach?
Well—the answer depends. Preaching, after all, is a form of teaching, and teaching as a practice always has to maintain a careful balance between the demands of the content and the needs of the learner. A more helpful question may not be “Should I fill my sermon with technical language,” but “In what contexts are big words and accurate theological nomenclature helpful—and when are they a barrier to communicating the very truths I have worked to develop through my content?”
I remember, for instance, the first time one of my professors used the word orthogonal in a graduate level math course. “What does that mean?” I wondered. His knowledge of math clearly exceeded mine. He proved himself an authority on the subject—but I was left confused, aware that his authority derived from his superior knowledge of math, yet still unaware of the practical value of the lesson at hand.
Later, I figured out that orthogonal was simply the precise, graduate level term for the angle formed by perpendicular lines—a math concept I’d first encountered in tenth-grade Geometry. “Why didn’t he just say perpendicular,” I wondered?
It took some time to realize that he wasn’t using a big word simply to throw me off: He was actually using the correct technical word for a precise concept closely related to perpendicular lines. But he missed an important step in communicating his content: He didn’t define his terms. I was lost for the rest of the class until I was able to look it up myself.
When communicating spiritual truth, there is a definite benefit to using precise, theologically correct language. In fact, it can be good to expose an audience to terms like soteriology, eschatology, or protoevangelion, even if they seem foreign to them at first. Problems arise, however, when we use such terms without care for how a listener receives them.
As a teacher myself, I recommend figuring out your audience’s starting point of theological knowledge, then building up your concept and use of precise theological terms from their baseline. When teachers use language that is accessible to their audience, they can build listeners’ knowledge up from a strong foundation that forms an even stronger sense of understanding.
In my math example, this might have meant gauging whether my students first know what perpendicular lines are. If not, then teacher would need to define and illustrate that word before he went on to use it to define orthogonal. Teachers, in other words, have a responsibility to walk learners through their process of thought with language they can access.
Even once you’ve defined your terms with accessible language, though, your job’s not done yet. The next key to understanding in any given audience is to take these newly learned words and use them in context: “The tree is perpendicular to the ground, and the angle formed by the two is orthogonal.”
With a theological concept, similar application of the term after defining a concept moves the listener from a “head knowledge” of a new word to a practical theology, an understanding of a doctrine that matters when they walk out the door. Application aids retention, which means that presenting a theological term without practical application can become self-defeating.
Yes, then, big words may sometimes be useful—but they’re most powerful when used sparingly and wisely. The benefit of precise theological nomenclature is one of both authority and orthodoxy: By using the language of those trained in the Church in correct doctrine, you give your listeners a reason to trust the substance of your teaching. If you are an ordained minister, you reflect why you were entrusted with the authority to speak into your parishioners’ lives. You also reflect the long history of doctrine in the Church: We are not individuals forming our own cult and teaching our own doctrine. Rather, we communicate truths of old—ones we did not invent ourselves.
Precise theological nomenclature can subtly (and sometimes explicitly) reflect this truth to your audience—but if preachers drop their duty to shepherd their congregations for the sake of impressing others, such language may end up being fruitless. Technical theological language can be helpful; however, teachers of all sorts should use them with care and attention for how their audiences receive them—and, more importantly, how they will use them after they leave the building.
Wendy Alsup is a math teacher and author of Is the Bible Good for Women? Read more of her writing at theologyforwomen.org.
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