Gannon Sims: Word renovation

Our vocabulary, on matters both institutional and faithful, can become dulled.

These months of budget shortfalls and institutional retooling may not foster new staff hires and building renovations. But it has given our institutions a chance to refocus energy. While we’re looking at ways to spend our money wisely, what if we learned to do the same with our words? Words lose their luster. When they do, we need word renovation.

If you’ve ever renovated an old house, perhaps you know the joy of pulling up a musty piece of shag carpet to discover hardwood floors underneath. But the newly discovered floors aren’t often ready for the local historic homes tour once the shag is rolled up and recycled. The dust has to settle. There’s sanding and sweeping; staining and polishing to be done. Only after all of this do the floors begin to shine.

So what are the words that need renovation? It’s the common parlance of staff meetings and interoffice memoranda, of course. They’re words that generate the synergy required to enable our partners to leverage their strengths and gain traction in growing our market share.

Some words become the victims of their own success. They used to feel good. So did shag carpet. Trouble is no one outside the organization (and no more than a few inside) knows what these words really mean.

This is often a two-fold problem for Christian institutions. Not only do we have the opportunity to overuse and misappropriate the language of the corporate culture, we also have the opportunity to overuse and misappropriate the language of the faith we claim to profess.

Those entrusted with the Word must be especially careful with how we use words. The poet Scott Cairns writes about an orthodox Christian monk who was asked by a sincere but insensitive evangelical whether he knew Jesus as his own personal Lord and Savior (a question I asked someone just yesterday). Smiling, the monk replied “No, I like to share him.”

When the language of our own particular slice of Christianity loses its edge, we need to renovate the language. This does not always mean that we change the words we use, but it does mean than we gain a clearer idea about what these words mean.

Eugene Peterson is a master at the art of language renovation. In Tell it Slant, he writes this:

Jesus came to save our souls. He also came to save our words. Word and words are at the very core of God’s revelation of himself to us. If the words are damaged through careless or malicious usage, or are left in bad repair, or pick up barnacle encrustations from hanging around in bad company, the sharp details of the Jesus revelation are blunted.

The words we use mean something. Leaders of institutions pay all sorts of attention to the condition of budgets and buildings. How much more effective could we be if we gave equal attention to the condition of our words?

Gannon Sims is a pastoral resident at Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas.