Can you make sense of the following sentence? “GC HR invites you for an ARM presentation, followed by a GCLC meeting. Be sure to check in via UltiPro.”
If you’ve ever worked in the building on 12501 Old Columbia Pike in Silver Spring, Maryland, also known as the headquarters of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, you should be able to make sense of the example. Almost anyone else will struggle to understand the sentence. Here is the annotated translation: “The General Conference human resources office invites you for an Adventist Risk Management [i.e., the insurance arm of the church] presentation, which will be followed by a General Conference Leadership Council meeting [which includes all department directors, associate and assistant directors, senior leadership, etc.]. Participants should check in online using the software employed by the human resources office.”
Language, any language, is an important factor of group identity. That’s neither positive nor negative. Soccer fans or baseball fans speak a different language to one another than computer geeks, video game aficionados, or avid gardeners—even though they all may communicate in English. Language helps to define who is part and who isn’t part of a particular group.
The jargon and language we use in groups also helps to create and reinforce ties and relationships. When we speak and understand the right lingo, we feel that we belong—and also recognize others who belong or do not belong. Close-knit communities often share similar language and values. Germany boasts many regional dialects that sound distinct from the High German taught at school. I remember the feeling of not belonging when we first moved to the small village in southern Germany where I grew up, because my language sounded different from everybody else’s. Language can be inclusive or exclusive.
We often use jargon and abbreviations as shortcuts for more complex messages—with the risk that shared language doesn’t really coincide with shared meaning and convictions. Religious groups often develop very specific terminology that may be unintelligible to those not belonging to the group.
For many of us, church is a place of safety. We enjoy friends, familiar routines, well-loved hymns or worship songs, fellowship luncheons, and so much more. The pandemic has reminded us of the importance of many of these shared experiences we often take for granted. At the same time, everything familiar to us, everything that thrills our souls, can at the same time also become a deterrent to others.
Adventist Church talk, also known as the “language of Canaan,” can become a hindrance to mission. It may lead to a “bubble mentality,” where members enjoy the safety and comfort of familiar phrases more than the joy of sharing Jesus in a way that can be understood by outsiders not familiar with “Canaan’s language.”
Here are some examples of how we often talk with each other: while visitors may have heard the “Old Rugged Cross” before entering an Adventist church, they may wonder about the meaning of the three angels’ messages or the great controversy or the pen of inspiration—to mention just a few phrases. The challenge becomes even more relevant when we look at Adventism in more secular contexts beyond the still relatively “Christianized” United States. How can people living in secular Europe or Australia even relate to basic Christian vocabulary and concepts such as grace, salvation by faith, the Trinity, or our need to “fall—or stand, or be planted—on the Rock of Ages”?
Jesus Himself offers us a paradigm that may point us in the right direction as we try to “pop” the bubble. He didn’t speak like other rabbis and scribes. His parables were taken from real life and connected to the reality of people living in an agrarian society. People were astonished when they heard Him, “for He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (Matt. 7:29). People walked for hours and stayed days to be able to listen to Him. His language was an extension of His gentle, kind, and caring character. Children felt drawn to Him (Mark 10:13-16)—and He enjoyed having them around.
Ellen White offers some additional insights: “Jesus met the people on their own ground, as one who was acquainted with their perplexities. He made truth beautiful by presenting it in the most direct and simple way. His language was pure, refined, and clear as a running stream. His voice was as music to those who had listened to the monotonous tones of the rabbis. But while His teaching was simple, He spoke as one having authority. This characteristic set His teaching in contrast with that of all others. The rabbis spoke with doubt and hesitancy, as if the Scriptures might be interpreted to mean one thing or exactly the opposite. The hearers were daily involved in greater uncertainty. But Jesus taught the Scriptures as of unquestionable authority. Whatever His subject, it was presented with power, as if His words could not be controverted.”*
Perhaps the most important language skill we may learn from Jesus as we attempt to pop our often-self-centered bubbles is the ability to communicate complex eternal truths in a way that doesn’t require an academic degree while pointing the audience again and again to the grace and compassion of the living Word.
Language is powerful.
Language is transformative.
Language is divisive.
Language is disruptive.
Language is all of this—and so much more. Poets shape lines that communicate much more than the sum of the meaning of the individual words—and, like them, we are invited to find, day after day, refreshing, clear, and understandable words of comfort, consolation, encouragement, and renewal that can function as bridgeheads for God’s Spirit, who is in the business of transforming hearts and minds.
As we strive to reach this ideal, we may just discover that these “words of life” will also refresh our own parched hearts and hard-edged minds.
* Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1898, 1940), p. 253.
Gerald A. Klingbeil serves as associate editor of Adventist Review.