Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Can You Speak the Adventist Lingo?

In RECORD articles and editorials entitled "Avoiding Cliches, Jargon and Other Pitfalls" (November 22, 1986) and "Losing Touch" (December 13, 1986), Pastor James Coffin raised several points regarding articles submitted for publication. His ideas stimulated my mind to reflect on the larger issue of the language we use not only when we write, but whenever the "Adventist family" gets together. 

Have you ever felt a twinge of panic when you heard that a non-Adventist friend was coming to church? Have you ever thought silently, I'm glad THEY weren 't here to hear that ? Or maybe you have spent all Sabbath afternoon with some non-Adventist Christian friend who had accompanied you to church— trying to rescue certain speakers of the morning from the dreadful impression they had unwittingly conveyed? 

Often the problem is in the language itself. How often do we really listen to the actual words being magnificently in- toned in Sabbath school and church and consider their effect on any visitors present? Reflect with me for a moment. 

The Adventist Church consists of those "in the message," and constitutes "the remnant." Those who do not "rejoice in the truth" are variously designated as "outsiders," "unbelievers," "nominal Christians," "apostate Protestants" or, in the extreme (and not so much of late), "Babylon." 

Church organisation was early adopted by "the pioneers," giving rise to such institutions as "the General Conference," "the Division," "the Union" and "the Conference." Full-time employees of "the work" are, appropriately enough, known as "workers." 

The church owes much of its "light" to the "Spirit of Prophecy" as manifest in the work of the "servant of the Lord," at other times known as the "Lord's messenger" who, as we know, wrote with the "pen of inspiration." 

The church is dedicated to warning "the world," and to this end conducts "crusades," "campaigns" or "efforts." Some of these are prolonged, such as "1000 Days of Reaping" and "Harvest 90." We also maintain an active "right arm" to the "message," and further buttress our "outreach" with edifying publications such as the "Signs," the "RECORD" and the "Review." We even have an "overflow" each "13th Sabbath." Does it sound a bit "heavy" to you? 

The Adventist Church is not the only group of people to develop a special "language." In fact, everybody does it! Sociologists and linguists tell us that a variety of social groups exist, each with their own tongue. Sociologists Doughty, Pearce and Thornton suggest five broad classifications of such speech communities. These are: 

1. Geographical—He comes from the back o' Bourke. 

 2. Familial—He belongs to the Mac Arthur clan. 

 3. Occupational—She is a lawyer. 

 4. Public—They are the ratepayers of Coober Pedy. 

 5. Personal—We belong to the leagues club, the yacht club, the Seventh-day Adventist Church. 

It is a well-known and documented phenomenon that groups formed for any of the above primary purposes will inevitably adopt an in-house vernacular. This special language performs the following functions: 

1. It provides a vehicle for the communication of complex concepts within the group. 

2. It enhances the feeling of belonging within the group by promoting security for "in"-group members. 

3. It sets apart members of the group from those who are not members— perhaps from those who are not eligible for membership. 

4. It promotes the aims and interests of the group by defining clearly identified concepts and understandings important to the group. And in so doing it unconsciously reinforces those ideas for group members. 

Clearly, the primary value of the "in" language will vary according to the nature and purpose of the group. In the case of the third classification, the occupational or professional speech community, the primary purpose of the vernacular is to provide! a concise, unambiguous set of symbols with which to convey difficult concepts. An example of such a group is provided by computer technicians. Their technical language includes such everyday terminology as "bits," "nibblers," "menus," "gates," "bus drivers" and "chips"—all of which have been redefined by the user group to have special meanings. 

Of course, terminology related to church structure and organisation does serve the purpose of providing concise, unambiguous symbols for concepts and subgroups within the church. But many of the phrases unique to the church community serve other ends. 

Some terms, such as the "Advent family" and "the message" may exist exclusively to enhance the group identity—to make the group more comfortable. Also, such a vernacular helps define the group's boundaries and may prevent fringe members from leaving by providing a wall between the church group and those outside it. 

A strong disadvantage, however, is the impression that inevitably is given to potential members. Everybody feels intuitively that they cannot use "the language" unless they have learned the group "feel." After all, how many times have teenagers winced when parents, clearly out of touch, attempt to use their language? We use other people's language at our peril, and usually to our destruction. 

And what about exclusive terms? A few Sabbaths ago, the terms "Christian" and "Adventist" were used interchangeably while I squirmed in the same pew as a non-Adventist Christian friend. I have no doubt about the impression given, because I was told explicitly afterwards! 

How do words such as "outsider," "unbeliever," "the truth," come across? Is it any wonder that we have acquired the reputation of being exclusive? Often the words we use, such as "campaign," "effort" and "crusade," unconsciously betray our attitudes to others. 

Many of these terms derive from a "fortress" model of the church, where those "inside" have some sort of higher claim to divine favour. Not so many derive from the "salt" model, where the church influences for good by its continued presence. 

At a baptism recently, I heard repeated allusion to the joy that is experienced in heaven when a soul accepts the Saviour, and joins the church of God. The only problem in this case was that the participant had been a very sincere, practising Christian in another denomination for many years! My thoughts went to those fine Christian family members who had come by request to witness the baptism and to see what an Adventist church was like. 

In principle, we say that even our Sabbath meetings should be conducted in a manner so as to attract members to our ranks. Where is the church that would not like to have more visitors? In practice, however, how much care do we take to ensure that they will understand what is said and feel welcome? 

I feel that it is time to give a little more thought to eliminating some unnecessary and sometimes unfortunate expressions from our collective vocabulary and make our fellowships more comfortable for those we are trying to attract. We really do have good news to share. Let's sound like it. 

Author: Lynden Rogers, physics lecturer in the Avondale College science department, Cooranbong, New South Wales 1974

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