Which Words Matter, and When?

For last year’s words belong to last year’s language 
And next year’s words await another voice.
― T.S. EliotFour Quartets

A few years back I spoke at a Christian conference for teens, sponsored by a well-known national youth ministry network. It was a pleasure, of course. But midway through the weekend, after I’d presented two of my five scheduled lectures, my host took me aside and said, “I love what you’re saying. But could you cut down on the Christianese? A lot of these kids don’t get the terms you’re using.”

Naturally, I was concerned. “Which terms do you mean?” I asked.

“Oh, you know. ‘Born again.’ ‘Sanctified.’ That sort of thing.”

I don’t quite remember what I said, but I’m sure it was something along the lines of “I’ll do my best.” What I do remember, though, is feeling something close to shock.

Had I been using terms like that when speaking to non-believers, I can see why there’d by some disconnect. But when did “born again” become an unfamiliar phrase to Christian young people? Does “sanctified” now qualify as old-fogy Christianese?  Either I was way out of touch, or there were a lot of important words getting lost in the gulf between my generation and
the next. 

Granted, religious clichés don’t go over well with younger folks, and why should they? Heck, I’m not crazy about them myself. So I do think that, as much as possible, we should communicate in ways that are understandable to our listeners, taking into account their culture and age. But when concepts that are wholly Biblical, both in their phrasing and meaning, are foreign to believers of any age, then I think something’s wrong. Maybe it’s me; maybe it’s more.

Either way, it’s a growing concern. Just last week I read an article in a Christian journal warning yet again about “Christianese”, and how it turns people off. So I guess that, whatever it is, it’s something people are talking about, something people are criticized for using, and something we’re told to avoid.

So let’s look at this whole issue of language among Christians, and this thing
called “Christianese.”

What it Is

Technically, it’s not just Bible-based terms. It’s more like catchphrases or labels we’ve developed as part of our vernacular.

There’s a handy resource on the topic you can click onto called Dictionary of Christianese .  I really enjoyed browsing this somewhat tongue-in-cheek site, which lists an impressive number of phrases we really do throw around pretty casually, assuming our listeners know what they mean.

Check it out and you’ll find definitions of well-worn sayings like “WWJD”, “armor bearer”, “sloppy-agape”, “covet your prayers”, “seeker sensitive”, and (my favorite) “pew potato.”

Need a Translator?

So OK, I think I get it. Like any culture, we’ve developed phrases drawn from shared experience, though not directly from scripture. Christianese is a kind of insider dialogue, made up of words holding important meaning to us, a meaning understood primarily by Christians of our particular demographic. And I guess there’s nothing inherently wrong with that.

But there could be.

After all, it’s wrong to presume everyone we converse with has a working knowledge of our lingo. To someone who doesn’t, we who use these terms indiscriminately might sound like those folks who speak a foreign language to their friends in our presence. They understand the conversation; we don’t. So we feel left out and, often, irritated by what appears to be exclusionary rudeness on
their part.

In short, Christianese could, to a non-believer or a fellow believer who’s not part of our tradition, seem arrogant. That alone should give us pause before using it without thinking.

And it would be even worse to allow that kind of communication gap to block our ability to minister to non-believers or, for that matter, other believers unfamiliar with our slang. If we need a translator, even though we’re speaking the same language as our hearers, than I’d say the problem is us, not them. Religious verbiage can be a turn off.

My bottom line, then, is that Christianese is neither bad nor good. What makes it one or the other is the context it’s used in, so I have a responsibility to consider the people I’m speaking to and choose my words accordingly. This, I think, is in line with Paul’s approach in Athens when he quoted Greek philosophy and tried finding common ground with his hearers.
(Acts 17:16-31)

But What about Bible-ese?

Some terms, though, should be repeated and woven into our dialogue, because words of life drawn from scripture aren’t clichés. They’re eternal truths, phrased under inspiration and well worth passing on from generation to generation. So while I’m surely not married to WWJD?, I won’t be dropping born again, sanctified, second coming, sound doctrine, holiness, or trinity from my vocabulary anytime soon. Or anytime ever. Biblically based terms aren’t slang to be discarded, nor are they relics to apologize for.

Some traditions are insignificant enough to be thrown out. Others are worth holding onto, though they’re not sacred cows. And some should never be touched. Old phrases I cut my teeth on decades ago like plead the blood and I’ll see you here, there, or in the air are just plain Christianese. They’re cute, but expendable, and I can take or leave them.

Sacred hymns, sung less and less these days, contain precious phrases like Just as I am without one plea or Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life alsothat I wish we’d preserve and keep alive in every generation’s vocabulary. Still, they’re not sacred cows, and I can’t call them essentials.

But what’s divinely inspired is not only authoritative but, I hope, also not up for grabs. I see no need for us to impose the clichés of our time on those who are unfamiliar and probably uninterested in adopting them, so I agree: let’s watch the Christianese.

Let’s also insure, though, that each generation of believers is primarily rooted and grounded in a Biblically based world view, secondarily settled in phrases and customs agreeable to them and their unique taste (but dear Lord, do ya’ll really need those tattoos?) and able to discern, thanks to a healthy church environment, the difference between the two.


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