Big Words at Church

Photo by Muffet

I know, I know.  I’ve been away from the blog for the past couple of weeks.  Fall is a pretty busy time for church youth workers.  There’s a blog post to be written about how there never really is a slow time for youth ministry.  But for now…

Yesterday I preached at our two big morning worship services at Fourth Church, which I get to do about three or so times a year.  I preached on the lectionary, and the gospel text was the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.  There was a line in my sermon that I decided to change at the last minute:

Jesus’ end times vision of role reversals, in which the “last shall be first and the first shall be last,” comes to fruition in this cautionary tale of wealth and poverty.

Originally, I was going to say, “Jesus’ eschatological vision…”.  But as I was making my final revisions, I recalled some of my early days of preaching, when folks would point out that I often used big theological words that I learned in seminary.  This time, I opted to use plain English that people would clearly understand.

This always raises a question that every preacher faces: should we use technical theological language in our sermons or keep it simple?  On the one hand, we want our congregations to know what we are saying.  At the same time, I think we have an obligation to teach our congregations the language of our tradition.

Often, we can use a theological term and then define it.  But in many instances this is cumbersome.  Besides, I like the idea of people going home and looking up words I use in a sermon.  Or, better yet, they could ask me about them afterward.

I guess I tend toward the approach of inviting listeners to rise to a higher level of discourse rather than reducing everything to a least common denominator.  I probably should have kept “eschatological” in there.

What do you think?  Just be sure your comments don’t use big words I don’t know…

Comments

  1. Annette Milton says:

    I find it an extra special experience to hear my really intelligent Baptist pastor use words that are not a part of my daily vocabulary (some of the youth dub him, to his face, “Mr. Dictionary.” But then I like research. So when I need to know more, a real joy in my life, I appreciate the encouragement from the pulpit. As you say, John, I can always ask the pastor for explanation; so go forth, Young Pastor, and keep us better informed!

  2. Annette Milton says:

    And I know that you will forgive the error in leaving out the close-parenthesis punctuation after the quotation. That occured after a top-of-the shelf marguerita by another Mr. Vest. None of us is perfect; only “an oversight” as the freshmen English students say!

  3. Rich Pak says:

    John, this is something I think about constantly as I am mostly preaching to youth. I think you can use big words in your sermons without explicitly defining it. Instead, of pulling out the dictionary, just reiterate the point using simpler language. How about something like this:

    “Jesus’ eschatological vision [pause] his end times vision of role reversals…”

  4. Joshua Patty says:

    I think that you can use big words, defined explicitly or contextually. It helps that you understand the big words you use, unlike many others.

    Whether you try or not, you will naturally gravitate to accurate vocabulary, which will sometime include big words. I’m reminded of an old interview between Rosie O’Donnell and Jodie Foster where Jodie Foster (who graduated with lots of honors from Yale) tried to downplay stories of her intelligence. Then when she was talking about living in France, she made a comment with the phrase, “being a Francophile.” She didn’t bat an eye because she was talking naturally, using the word that best described what she was trying to say. This, despite the fact that she was also trying to appear ‘not too smart.’

  5. Josh, I’m not sure what’s more frightening: the thought of Rosie O’Donnell interviewing Jodie Foster or the fact that you remember it.

  6. Jeff Lipschultz says:

    I’d venture to say that people can usually figure stuff out in context … or, if they’re wondering more precisely, they can use a dictionary or even (and this may well be the ideal situation) have an in-depth conversation with the minister about the content of the sermon. In my experience as a layman, theological terms in the sermon are more something that clergy fret about than something that affects the rest of us, except in such cases as their absence visibly impairs the minister’s ability to discuss a topic in due depth.

  7. John – In my experience using the technical terms can really help in getting the fuller meaning of a text across independent of whether I am speaking to youth or a wider audience. Having said that when speaking I don’t usually use the ‘big words’ unless it really is the best word for the context of the sermon.

    What I find matters more though is the tone in which the terms are used. Sometimes you hear preachers speak who obviously know that the majority of people listening don’t know what he is talking about but he uses the words anyways just to sound intelligent….. then the congregation act like they caught it all so they too look intelligent. The better option is always humility….. so for me using the ‘big words’ is rare unless really needed.

    I guess I’m preacher to the choir though on the tone comments… but you know what I mean right?

    Love your post.

    Rich (twitter: @ichrch)

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