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Take Two Christian Terms and Call Me in the Morning

During an ad-break for a streaming TV drama, a question occurred to me—one of those questions I felt dumb for not knowing the answer to: Why do pharmaceuticals always have two names?

There’s the branded name, like Jardiance, Keytruda, or Chantix—that’s the name in bold typeface, the name the voiceover person says, the name they want you to remember. But in parentheses, there’s another name—often called the active ingredient—that represents the actual drug compound (empagliflozin, prembrolizumab, and varenicline, respectively).

As a non-scientist, all I knew about these drugs was what I saw in the commercials, and it confused me. Why have two names? Why not just call it the easier name and be done with it? Why make it so complicated?

I took my question to social media. And my friends came through!

Turns out, the branded name is the trademarked intellectual property of the company that discovered the drug. The generic name needs to fit a bunch of criteria to make it safe for doctors to prescribe. It must fit into an established protocol where the suffix is consistent with other drug names that have similar effects. And it needs to be memorable and understandable—across many different languages!—and not too similar to any other existing drug on the market (of which there are thousands at a time). 

The generic name is what allows me to go to a drugstore and look for cheaper versions of ibuprofen or acetaminophen instead of paying for their slightly more expensive branded versions, Advil and Tylenol.

Now that I’ve read up a little, it makes sense to me. But before I did, I did not have the professional training to intuitively understand the linguistic value of a word like varenicline. There were just too many layers of abstraction, and it all looked like gibberish.

If your idea of “pastor” is “trustworthy person who is always available to meet my needs,” you might conclude your pastor is ineffective.

Similarly, now that I’ve spent the last four years in two different pastoral roles, I think I understand better why we have so much confusion in the American church. Some of it has to do with the cultural baggage we bring into our faith traditions, in particular the ways many white evangelicals tend to assume their cultural framework should be the default way to interpret things.

But I also think our terminology is failing us. For example, the term “pastor” is one we all use regularly, and we assume we all mean the same thing when we say it. But inside each pastoral role is a blend of active ingredients, things like hermeneutics and exegesis, as well as charisma, management, delegation, and emotional intelligence. Maybe there’s also a dash of spiritual direction or rhetoric. Every pastor’s blend is a little different.  The same is true for “church.” Inside our common understanding of the word are active ingredients like incarnation, fellowship, and worship. But there could also be other ingredients too, like identity, celebrity, programming, social services, or even in some cases, political action committee. Each church’s blend is a little bit different.

In 2020, many of us had to go through long stretches without worshiping in person. Many of us had to mix in large doses of technology to offset the dearth of incarnation. We’ve had to find different blends of innovation and sanctification to account for the drastic changes the pandemic has inflected on our communities.

But God’s people aren’t served well if these terms are subsumed under bigger words of “church” and “faith.” If your idea of “church” consists solely of “a place where I go to see my friends and drop off my kids for a bit” and your idea of “pastor” is “trustworthy person who is always available to meet my spiritual or emotional needs,” well, eventually you might conclude that your pastor is ineffective, your church isn’t working, and you need something else.

In any crisis, there is both danger and opportunity. As the pandemic begins to subside, so will the danger. But the opportunity remains. Perhaps the biggest takeaway from 2020 is we will always have a need for the church’s active ingredients, but we need new proportions and configurations to remain effective.

About the Author

  • Jelani Greenidge is the missional storyteller for the Evangelical Covenant Church and ministers in and around Portland, Oregon, as a worship musician, cultural consultant, and stand-up comic.

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