The Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14).
Christians have argued over words ever since.
What does a church call its new sermon series? The pastor has a choice: opt for a traditional title or push the envelope with something edgy. Perhaps ditching “Journeys with Paul” for “Scandalous: Paul and the Corinthians.”
This impulse makes sense. In a clickbait world, we are seeking to be heard amidst the noise. But the words we choose matter—and can have unintended consequences.
Can authors who write about faith—journalists, poets, novelists, or essayists—draw deeply from religious terminology to speak to a broad audience, or will doing so risk alienating the very audience they’re trying to reach? Faith practitioners must consider what resonance theological words have in today’s public arenas.
At the heart of Christian meaning-making and ministry is the work of translation, and the underlying question it raises: what words will make faith come alive in conversations and communities?
Conversations about the power of words to provoke or resonate have been at the heart of the Collegeville Institute Seminars’ work on vocation and calling. Whenever theologians, social scientists, and ministers gathered in the Seminars, the discussion around the table reached the same question: what do we mean by vocation, and can it still speak to people today?
Is the word too static (stuck as a noun), too traditional (implying ordained ministry), or too fraught (weighted with theological baggage)? Should we use calling instead—a more active and evocative term, a word that implies both a caller and one who is called? Or if we want to broaden our work for a wider audience, do we need find new metaphors to freshen up our language?
Recently the Collegeville Institute launched a new effort around the same subject of vocation, this time focused on congregations. As our staff created the new program, we debated the relative merits of various names for the project. Ultimately we landed on the Communities of Calling Initiative. But the discussion of the project’s name was so rewarding that we decided to explain the meaning of each word we chose (here on our website).
Naming is no small decision. Through conversations about titles and language, we delved into the kind of work that we hope will engage our partner congregations within their local communities. The churches who join the project will need to find the words that fit their context. If vocation isn’t the catalyst that sparks conversation in their community, other words may open the door—discipleship, ministry in daily life, service, or gifts of the Spirit.
Whether we preach, teach, write, or read, we do well to attend to the importance and power of language. Especially when more and more people self-identify as “nones” or “new atheists” (linguistic constructions unimaginable a generation ago), anyone who wrestles with words on the page, in the pulpit, or in the public square faces increasingly complex issues of translation.
So what can we do with the limited nature of the words we have, especially in the contexts of church and classroom? Drawing from our work on vocation, here are a few thoughts on what helps:
Define your terms. An obvious point, but too often neglected. Assuming a shared understanding of any term puts any discussion at risk. Too much time spent on introductory matters can become tiresome, but writing, preaching, and teaching all benefit from well-defined starting points—the solid ground from which creative, complex explorations can unfold. With a loaded religious word like vocation, for example, is the author or pastor trying to resurrect traditional theological meanings or embrace contemporary secularization of the term? Both approaches may be fruitful, but a reader or listener needs to know where to locate the discussion before she can follow where the writer wants to lead.
Admit the imperfection. Especially when it comes to religion, words aim to describe realities which cannot fully be captured by them. Acknowledging the complexities in whatever terms we have chosen—for any given project, writing, or conversation—can humble our stance toward words and the deeper truths they point toward. We do well to remember that the tools we use to explore questions of faith—whether words, ministries, books, or buildings—are not themselves the faith.
Vary your language. While writers and preachers aim for clarity and precision of thought, repetition of the same term is not always the best way to achieve these ends. In our work in the Collegeville Institute Seminars—and now in the Communities of Calling Initiative—we’ve varied our language about our subject: we speak of vocation, calling, meaning, and purpose. Discipleship captures something of what we mean, as does mission. Choosing a few evocative terms and using them to supplement and enrich one another can open the way to a broader and deeper vision of the reality we are trying to describe and engage.
Perhaps most important is the reminder to feast upon good language. In a culture caught up by the latest tweet-storm, the daily act of sitting down with Scripture, poetry, or a novel becomes a formative practice of reflection—even a protest to the impoverishment of language.
Words matter. May we use them wisely.