By Jacqueline J. Holness
Chances are, if you grew up in the Christian church or have been a member for several years, you are bilingual. Not only do you speak English, you also speak Christianese. Every culture has its own language. But the Lord expects us to help others understand why he is the one true God and why we should know him through his Son, Jesus Christ. To accomplish this goal, we must be able to translate cliché church speak into standard English.
What We Really Mean
Rebecca Manley Pippert said in her book Out of the Salt Shaker & Into the World (InterVarsity, 1999), “When we explain the Christian message, we should do so in plain language, preferably in fresh and creative ways. Few things turn off people faster or alienate them more easily than God-talk.”
Pippert explained that average people do not understand phrases such as “washed in the blood of the Lamb” and “sanctified and redeemed.” Also Pippert noted that Christians should be able to define Christian terms such as grace, salvation, justification, regeneration, redemption, and born again. Pippert said that after speaking with a woman about the Bible, the woman responded, “I want to thank you, not only for speaking to me about spiritual things, but for saying it in English!”
Although this is a serious topic, we can make fun of ourselves and the language that we have cultivated throughout the years. Independent scholar Tim Stewart is developing a Dictionary of Christianese (www.dictionaryofchristianese.com). Some of the words and phrases Stewart defined are: carnal Christianity, cheap grace, “God is a gentleman,” “God-is-my-girlfriend song,” “God said it, I believe it, that settles it,” and “hedge of protection.” Do you know what these words and phrases mean without looking them up? I do, but I imagine that the average person walking down the street does not!
The Evangelical Press Association has also translated some Christianese terms in its article “I’m Turning Christianese.” Here are some of the funnier phrases and their translations: “She has such a sweet spirit!” means “What an airhead!” “That’s not my spiritual gift” translates into, “Find someone else.” When someone says, “You just have to put it in God’s hand,” what they are really saying is, “Don’t expect me to help you.”
Words to Leave Behind
In the September/October 2013 issue of RELEVANT magazine, Jon Acuff wrote “20 Christianese Phrases We Really Need to Stop Saying.” One of those phrases is “I covet your prayers.” Acuff noted: “Throughout the Bible we’re told not to covet, and yet here we are ‘redeeming’ this phrase. Quit it. You might as well say, ‘I idolize your prayers.’” Here is a phrase I’ve heard my father use over and over again: “going through a season.” Acuff said: “We are constantly creating our own extra seasons to go through. Got a flat tire on the way to work? That’s a season. Got dumped after one awkward date at Olive Garden? That’s a season.”
While our church speak is potentially affecting our witness, (another Christianese term), we may be driving away some of the members we already have. There are numerous studies and articles demonstrating that millennials (people who became adults around the year 2000) are leaving the church. In her article “5 Churchy Phrases That Are Scaring Off Millennials” in The Washington Post, Addie Zierman pointed out that millennials don’t like the term to “love on” someone. “We may understand that we need help, but we certainly don’t want to be anyone’s project or ministry.”
Believer, unbeliever, and backsliding aren’t attractive words for millennials either. “Millennials are sick of rhetoric that centers around who’s in and who’s out. We know our own doubtful hearts enough to know that belief and unbelief so often coexist.”
An Eloquent Example
But the good news is that we don’t have to look very far to find an example of how to communicate. In his article “Do You Speak Christian?” CNN writer John Blake interviewed Wake Forest University School of Divinity professor Bill Leonard, who reminded me that we have to look no further than Jesus. “He used stories, parables and metaphors. He communicated in images that both the religious folks and nonreligious folks of his day understand.”
It is no coincidence that Jesus Christ is always the best model for Christian behavior. As he did, we must challenge ourselves to communicate God’s message of love so that others may understand.
Jacqueline J. Holness, a member of Central Christian Church in Atlanta, Georgia, is a correspondent for Courthouse News Service,
an online, national news service for attorneys. Contact Jacqueline at afterthealtarcall.com.