The Pulse: The Language of Insiders

, ,

It’s natural for insider language to develop around, well, pretty much anything.

My cousin has diabetes. He has since he was a child. He hasn’t let it hold him back. He’s been a world-class athlete, he’s building a tribe of healthy, active people also living with the disease. And he’s doing some things that are on the frontlines of science in the field of diabetes research and development.

I’ve seen him in his tribe. And it’s fascinating how mid-sentence, he can suddenly stop talking English. I mean, I recognise some of the words, like “insulin” and “testing”. But it’s really its own dialect; a mish-mash of slang, technical terminology and brand names. It’s clear that they understand what they’re talking about.

But I sure don’t.

When you’re in a tribe, specific language is abundantly useful. It helps convey with clarity and precision the unique realities which exist in it. It also bonds the people who are in it.

The problem is that it keeps outsiders outside.

Most of the time, this doesn’t matter too much. Sticking with the diabetes-tribe example, there aren’t too many times when people peripheral to the tribe need to understand the tribe’s code. The conversation is really only relevant to the people within it.

Church is different.

I’ve been a part of conversations that all of a sudden I felt excluded because I hadn’t read a certain book, or multiple books in a particular field. People who are well-read, or who have shared interests and levels of education can resort to what I call “book-title code”.

In my experience, time spent in a conversation like that is just wasted.

Hey, I get it: it’s fun for the people who are in it. They’re bonding, and they’re going deeper with the ideas and paradigms than they would on their own. The trouble is that we believe at its core that the kind of stuff being talked about in a holy huddle is, or should be, directly relevant to all people, including those who are outside of it. If we get stuck in the gear of jargon and theological terms, then it’s hard to be relatable to people who aren’t conversant at that level. If we aren’t able to express our thoughts clearly, perhaps they’re not clear to us.

If we’re not being responsible with our language, people don’t feel invited.

I think this is one of the gut-level issues that Jesus was addressing when he said that we need to be like children if we’re to enter the Kingdom. Ultimately, he was talking about making faith accessible. Jesus’ message is all about invitation — the biggest, deepest, richest invitation we can imagine. If invitation is the common thread to all of Jesus’ teaching, then preventing anyone from experiencing and knowing that they’re invited is antithetical. An unintentional barrier is often created in the way we use language.

As I started out saying, it is natural. Which means it takes intentionality to counter it.

Using children as our lens doesn’t mean that we “dumb things down”. Because for one thing — and I know this firsthand — kids are smart! Even though their vocabularies aren’t as developed, they can apprehend and understand more than we often give them credit for…a lot more! Ahem.

What it does mean is we need to make sure that we’re giving relatable on-ramps for understanding. We need to check in with people to understand how they’re understanding.

When we do that, we start to get this concept of invitation right. Our communication comes from a place of humility, putting other people’s interpretations ahead of our own intended meanings.

And when that happens, we might just find ourselves learning in the very places we’re trying to teach.