Big Words, Big Warnings

I recently listened to a few sessions from the last Evangelical Theological Society meetings. I’m a member and was planning to be there, but decided I’d rather teach a preaching course than attend the meetings. I have enjoyed the sessions I’ve listened to so far, but one thing stood out to me. In each of the papers that I listened to, it felt like the presenters were trying to pack the first few sentences with big words. Peer pressure, the desire to impress, the atmosphere of an intellectual atmosphere. Now as an academic I can relate to the word choices made, but as a preacher/communicator I felt very uncomfortable.

As preachers we can fall into the same trap. It is easy to choose big words when little ones would do the job. There may be the odd occasion where a big word is worth the extra effort and explanation required (such as key theological terms like justification). But often there is no real benefit to going big on the word front, and there may be real reasons not to:

Intellectual pride easily creeps in. The best sportsmen make their skill look easy, why don’t we take the same approach? Often the use of big words is partially driven by the desire to look intellectual and educated.

Communication is about communicating, not impressing. So what if people affirm the message after you’re done? So what if they take comfort from knowing that you know lots of theological stuff? The goal in preaching is not to indicate what you know, but to help them know and live out the Bible. If they don’t get the words, they won’t live the Word.

Big words can divide the church. What if some people understand the big words, while others do not? Surely a church divided along educational or class lines would undermine the very essence of the church as the New Testament presents it.

Generally speaking, when we’re tempted to use big words, let’s not.

3 thoughts on “Big Words, Big Warnings

  1. Very true. As a young preacher, I feel I’ve got to show I’m a good preacher so the congregation will invest in my preaching. This is always so much easier if you name drop or use big words.

    The fact of the matter is my job is to proclaim God’s Word in a way people can understand. Often those ideas are conveyed better in a goofy illustration than in a four syllable word. It’s about humility, but it’s always a struggle.

    Thanks for the continued challenge your blog always brings

  2. Hello Peter,

    This is a very necessary reminder. I listened to an online message recently and the pastor used one of those big German words: Heilsgeschichte, when he could have easily said “history of redemption”. He did this sort of thing a number of times and it added nothing to what he was communicating. He’s an excellent speaker, with really good content. It reminded me not to do this but to stick to “plain” preaching and to keep out the “purple patches”.

  3. Yes, let’s not use big words to impress people. But let’s not shy away from using proper technical language when appropriate. If you gentle introduce a congregation to one proper theological term each week in a way that is understandable and memorable, you’ll be doing them a service, not a disservice.

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