For if your gift is the ability to speak in tongues, you will be talking to God but not to people, since they won’t be able to understand you. You will be speaking by the power of the Spirit, but it will all be mysterious. But one who prophesies is helping others grow in the Lord, encouraging and comforting them. A person who speaks in tongues is strengthened personally in the Lord, but one who speaks a word of prophecy strengthens the entire church. ~ 1 Corinthians 14:2-4
Let’s say it at the start: this part of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians has been long debated in the history of the church. What actually constitutes tongues? Have they ceased as a spiritual gift? Do they continue?—all valid questions, but that’s not going to be the point of this post.
Instead, I want to think briefly about Paul’s greater point. In Corinth, the people had all sorts of spiritual gifts, but they were using them in the wrong ways. Paul corrected their attitude by helping them see that the gifts aren’t about self-exaltation. And the more spectacular gifts (tongues, miracles, healings, and the like) aren’t any better than the less spectacular ones. The point of the gifts is to love others and edify the church.
Using tongues and prophesy as examples (because it seems like a lot of people at Corinth were trying to talk in tongues whether they legitimately had the gift or not, while they were neglecting other things like prophesying), Paul made the point you aren’t going to help others grow in Christ unless they understand what you’re saying.
In other words: we need clarity.
Churchspeak is shorthand for using theological jargon that a lot of people may not understand. Churchspeak gets in the way of clarity.
Most church worship gatherings will have a wide range of people from newborn to in the nineties, from high school dropout to grad school educated, and from poorly read to well read. It is part of the beautiful diversity of the church. Not to mention that sometimes our English isn’t exactly the same English. If you put a person from the Northeast, South, and Northwest into the same room you’re likely to find confused looks at choice terms. As a Midwestern boy, the first time I heard a Southern friend tell me to “cut on the light,” I furrowed my brow, hung my jaw, and said, “What are you talking about?”
We will be hard pressed to ever communicate with 100% clarity to every member of our audience, but we should always try our best to find the common ground that will communicate as effectively as possible to all.
If you talk to people in a language they don’t understand, how will they know what you mean? You might as well be talking to an empty room. ~ 14:9
How do we achieve the best clarity? First, avoid academic jargon unless you’re in a room filled with the highly educated or well read. Most people in church don’t need to know transubstantiation or consubstantiation; but they do need to know what you believe about the Lord’s Supper or Communion. Most won’t care if you’re an infralapsarian or a supralapsarian so long as you can communicate how to know and follow Jesus.
Second, define the necessary terms. Terms like justification, sanctification, and glorification all have a rich history in the Christian faith. A young believer or a non-Christian may have little-to-no knowledge of what the words mean. These provide good teaching opportunities.
Third, don’t talk down to your audience but don’t talk far over their head. Know your audience. Seek to know them eye-to-eye. Know them on their level and communicate on that level. For a non-Christian you might have to define something even as basic to the faith as sin, but you don’t have to treat them like a child in the process.
Clarity is necessary to make Jesus known and to help people grow in him.
But this also has practical application in another aspect of our lives: the Bible translations we choose to use. Many older people in our churches grew up with and love the King James Version. That is great for them and for anyone who can understand it. Yet, many of the words and phrases are no longer adequate to communicate Jesus to the masses because we no longer speak the English of the 17th and 18th Centuries. We speak the English of 2015.
A Bible a person can’t understand fits as much under 1 Corinthians 14 as the way we talk about Jesus and the gospel. When God wrote his word through the hands of different men, he inspired them in their language and idioms. The Greek of the New Testament is even called Koine Greek because it was the common Greek of the common person in society of the time.
God desires his word to be as clear as possible for his people. Newer translations that are faithful to the Greek and Hebrew texts yet clearly communicate in modern English are best for most of our church people to read and hear from on a regular basis.
Let’s seek for clarity so we can help people truly know Jesus.
This post is part of our ongoing journey through the Bible as a church.
 This post is written from an Midwestern United States in 2015 cultural perspective. A different culture where English is not the first language or a language at all would need a modern [insert their language] Bible, of course.