Thursday, May 01, 2008

Overused Terms Used Wrongly

Here are a pair of terms that I hear used wrongly all the time, particularly in the context of the Church. This has been bugging me for awhile, so I have to get it off my chest.


People use this term incorrectly all the time. The choices in literature or verbal communication are figurative, that is you don't mean exactly what you are saying, you are using comparisons, analogies etc. to make your point, or literal, meaning you mean exactly what you are saying.

Example. On Sunday my pastor was talking about being on the fence, obviously referring to a place of non-commitment, caution etc. At one point he made the statement, "Some of you are still on the fence, literally...". Since we were all sitting in chairs, it is pretty obvious that none of us were literally sitting on a fence! This is one of hundreds of examples I hear of this being misused. A couple others are "I was literally rolling on the floor laughing...". This actually could be true, but it very seldom is. Another: "I'm literally starving." No, you're not, and all of the children of Africa who are literally starving resent that remark.


Here is another one that is misused in the church all the time: exponential, when referring to growth or number comparisons etc. Perhaps I should be less hard on this one, because I suppose it could be exaggeration, but it just doesn't seem they mean to exaggerate when I hear people use it. In addition, some actually combine a use of "exponential" with the term "literally"!

Let me explain. If you have even a sixth grade education in math, you know how exponents work. 2 raised to the 2nd power means 2X2, which equals 4. 2 to the 3rd is 2X2X2 which is 8, and on and on. To be fair, there are fraction exponents that are less than 2 but higher than one, but, to keep it simple, we are assuming they are talking about exponents of 2 and higher. So, for a church of 100 people to add 25 people, even 100 people in a weekend is not exponential growth. Exponential growth by a church of 100 would be a minimum of 100X100, or 10,000 new people. See, so it a ridiculous exaggeration to describe growth in terms of exponential. One true example of exponential grown is the early church, where 11 disciples and a few women became the seed to a movement that added thousands every day. That is exponential growth. Doubling a small group is not.

Sorry for being cantankerous. Thanks for your grace.


Earl said...

sorry for your frustration, but I found your rebuke entertaining.


Chip Burkitt said...

Actually, exponential growth refers to any kind of growth that continues to build on prior growth. An exponent of 2 is not required. Any exponent greater than 1 is sufficient, as proponents of compound interest well know. In addition, the exponent is often expressed as a percent of the current amount. For example, 25% growth, means that you added 25% more to what was already there. If you keep doing that, adding 25% every 6 months, for example, you quickly reach very impressive numbers. So a church with 30 members that experienced 25% growth every 6 months for just 5 years would grow to 279 members. If growth remained at 25% for another 5 years, they would grow to 2602 members. After 20 years, they would have 225,695 members. That is exponential growth.

Contrast it to linear growth where the same number of members are added every year. For example, if a church of 30 members added 25 members every 6 months for 10 years, they would grow to 530 members. After 20 years, they would have 1030 members.

In most cases, growth rates start high and taper off. The early church added 3,000 members in one day, but they did not sustain that growth rate. Since there were 120 in the upper room and 3,000 is 2500% of 120, if they had sustained a growth rate of 2500% every day, they would have converted the entire world in less than a week:

Day 1. Add 3,000 for a total of 3,120.

Day 2. Add 78,000 for a total of 81,120.

Day 3. Add 2,028,000 for a total of 2,109,120.

Day 4. Add 52,728,000 for a total of 54,837,120.

Day 5. Add 1,370,928,000 for a total of 1,425,765,120.

Now that's exponential growth!

Nick said...

Chip, how did I know you were going to throw cold water on my frustration?

My question is, if I asked the pastor (or whoever) who used the term to describe a kind of growth what he meant, would he explain what you just explained? I ind of doubt it, which leads me to think they dont really know what they mean when they use the term.

Chip Burkitt said...

Sorry, Nick. I didn't mean to literally rain on your parade... I mean literally throw cold water on you.

Chip Burkitt said...

Do you really think the children who are literally starving in Africa literally resent having their literalness co-opted by self-indulgent Americans? Is that literally (or figuratively) what you think? I like Ambrose Bierce's definition of literally.
Literally: adv. Figuratively.

Nick said...

No, Chip. See, I'm not against figurative language. In fact, I'm the figurativest guy you'll ever meet. It's the saying of the literal when it clearly isnt that is the pet peeve.