Every group uses jargon, words that people in the group understand but people outside the group don’t.
Prayer  is, of course, no exception. We use phrases like, “hedge of protection” to describe when we’re worried about someone and we hope nothing bad happens to them. And we say “burdens” to refer to important things things that we can’t stop thinking about, or “fellowship” to mean hanging out with other Christians, or “testimony” to mean the story of why we converted to Christianity.
I’m not saying this is wrong. Actually, it’s normal. People in any group develop their own language. Professionals do it. Families do it. Jargon, at it’s best, makes communicating faster and easier. And it also makes us feel closer to the people that share our jargon, like we’re all in the same club.
But, the downside is that people on the outside don’t really understand it. Jargon is a whole other sub-language, with its own vocabulary and grammar, it’s own history and culture. It speakers understand it without thinking about it, and they assume that others do too.
And Jargon is full of cliches; it often recycles things that we’ve heard since we were kids, things that we expect people to say before they even say them. Jargon has no surprises. It’s not interesting. It might even be said that it’s not actually saying anything. By that I mean, Jargon often doesn’t say anything that its speakers don’t already know. Jargon can be more ritual than communication.
For example, a jargon filled Christian prayer might go on for a few minutes and not actually communicate anything to it’s audience. Here’s one to consider:
“Dear Heavenly Father, we come before you as your children. Just bless us today and shower us with your cleansing rain and forge us a holy fire today, God. Oh, Father God, we just ask that your Holy Spirit fills us up with your grace and love. Help us to abide by your perfect will, and to seek your kingdom in all that we do. Lord, erect a hedge of protection around our hearts and spirits to defend us from the temptations of the adversary. Be with us as we worship you in song and testimony.”
But what if we tried to remove jargon from it? Could that actually help it communicate something real. Here it is, jargon-free:
“Dear God, Make something good and meaningful happen today. Inspire us to be kind and honest. And when we feel like being jerks, hopefully we’ll resist that urge. Amen.”
Notice that’s the new version is short. But yet, I suggest it says more than the first version, even though it’s only one-quarter the length.
The things I cut? They’re clutter. Like, “heavenly father, we come before you as your children.” This is obvious, we are here, we don’t need to announce our presence. Also, the ending, “be with us as we worship you in song and testimony.” Again, this is redundant. We’ve already requested God’s presence and we don’t need to announce that we’re going to sing and preach, everyone already knows that.
As for the parts I revised, I hope they are both clear and (more) surprising, and thus interesting. I did this by choosing only words that I use in daily conversation. It’s marvelous how simplicity can be a direct path to clear and poetic writing.
So, want to give it a try? Write down a typical prayer that you might say at a church event. Then follow three simple steps:
- Remove everything that is not necessary. This is the clutter: all the repetitions and the obvious stuff. Sometimes repetition is useful for making a point, but mostly we do it out of habit.
- Take all your jargon and reword it in terms that someone outside your group would understand.
- Only use words and language that are a part of the way you talk. If you can’t imagine yourself saying it to a coworker in the coffee room, then change it.
Is the new version better or at least shorter? More direct? More accessible to a wider audience? Or maybe it’s just robotic and bland. Either way, I’d suggest we keep trying. At the very least, we’re taking a moment to think about some of the stuff we usually pray without thinking. And, hopefully along the way, we’re becoming better communicators.
 In this post, I’m mostly talking about public prayer. We might assume that it doesn’t matter how well we communicate with God, since theoretically God is able to understand us even before we speak! But even in the case of personal prayer, praying in a jargon-less way is helpful. It helps the one praying understand what he or she is praying for.
BTW, it’s nerve-wracking to write posts about writing. I feel like I really have to write well if I’m trying to talk about how to write well. But, really, I’m just trying to figure this out, just like everyone else. And the main thing I’m hoping for is that I’m getting a little better each time I slap a couple hundred words on wordpress…