Of Spelling Bee Championship Words and Culture

This morning I was listening to NPR and heard about the young man who won the U.S. National Spelling Bee championship yesterday.  When they announced the word that Karthik Nemmani spelled, I thought “Hey! A word I know and can spell!”

But neither of the NPR Morning Edition hosts knew the word.  Later in the morning, I saw that none of the hosts on ABC Good Morning America or CBS This Morning knew the word.  Every one of these morning news hosts was completely unfamiliar with the word “koinonia”.

To be honest, I wouldn’t have been surprised if they were unfamiliar with the previous word in the competition (Bewusstseinslage – what a word!) but I was surprised at how the media are unfamiliar with a word that I hear all the time.  Bustle’s article says that koinonia is just as hard to say as to spell.  People’s article is headlined “That’s a Word?” (and the web header is “crazy winning words”).

As I went through my morning, these reactions of unfamiliarity with “koinonia” stayed with me.  I began to realize that a term with which I am very familiar, a term which I’ve heard used in multiple professional settings, a term which I often read in the professional books I buy, is a word that is specific to a culture.  Koinonia is a word that is used by theologians, who often are not writing for the general public.  It is sometimes used by church groups, often followed by a brief explanation.  It is a word that describes something that people understand, but they use other words for it.  Fellowship, family, connection, spiritual family.

There are words that we use in our cultural groups, words that mark who is an insider (those who know the term and use it appropriately) and who is an outsider (those who don’t know the term, who mispronounce it or misuse it).  In the United Methodist Church we have terms that are specific to our denomination – Annual Conference, for example.  I recently had to explain to one of my cousins why I couldn’t just skip an annual meeting (which is what she understood the term to mean) in favor of a family gathering.  United Methodists have acronyms too, and knowing them indicate who is a long time member of the group.  Older generations of United Methodist Women know their mothers were part of the WSCS (Women’s Society for Christian Service), for example.  If you happen to be Facebook friends with Methodist clergy and you go on that website on May 24th, you’ll probably hear comments about hearts being strangely warmed – a reference to John Wesley’s moment when he knew deeply that he was saved by God’s love, he was assured of God’s saving grace.  I’ve got a coffee mug that says “May your heart and coffee be strangely warmed” which is only funny to me and my family who’ve heard me go on about Wesley and his “strangely warmed heart” for many years.

Sometimes the way we talk amongst ourselves with our insider terms can leave people outside of the group.  My Christian friends who have experienced Christian fellowship want others to know this same spiritual connection.  We wouldn’t intentionally talk in a way that shut others out.  But we might unknowingly exclude people when we use insider terms.  As a Christian insider – one who has been Christian for many years, one who knows the terminology – it is my responsibility to be mindful of how I communicate with others.  It is my responsibility to be mindful of my assumptions.  Even if we share the same language, we might not share the same familiarity with words and their meanings in specific contexts.  As mission-minded persons, it is our responsibility to be mindful of how we use words so that others can hear the welcome of Christ.

Consider the words and terms that you use in your local church.  What assumptions have you made about what those outside the church think about your church?  How can you be more open as you share the good news of Jesus Christ in your own neighborhood?

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