“Hey Phil, how’s it going?”
“Hallelujah brother, God is good.”
“So… everything’s okay?”
“Glory to God, I’m washed in the blood of the lamb, man! Praise the Lord.”
Ever had that kind of conversation? Did you walk away having any clue how the other person was doing? When people say that stuff to me, all I hear is, “Religion, blah blah blah. Oughtashareit blah blah blah.” Eventually I give up because while I understand that Phil wants to bring God into his everyday interactions, I’ve lost Phil in the process.
I understand that every community will have it’s own specialized lingo. I also know that a community may emphasize or deemphasize the use of specialized language. In my opinion, it makes a big difference. Here are a few reasons to avoid Christianese:
1. Religious language enables hiding and the presentation of false selves. Religious language gives people the tools needed to present their ideal selves rather than their real selves. A well-crafted religious answer can give the false impression that a person is mature, put-together, and impermeable thus shutting down conversation. Even in a loving community, it’s easy for a person to use Christianese as a smoke screen to avoid being truly known.
2. Religious language presents a false model for maturity. If a preacher or church leader uses a lot of specialized jargon, constituents (or parishioners) will naturally seek to emulate that jargon. In college, I attended the church of popular Christian author, John Piper. I would watch as ordinary young men would come under his tutelage and at the end of two years, could pray and preach with the precise vocabulary, style, even cadence that Dr. Piper himself used. It wasn’t his fault. It’s human nature. When people seek to emulate someone with a Christian accent, it becomes easier to, “fake it ‘til I make it.” We come under the myth that the use of Christianese is a mark of maturity so we start using it, hoping it will make us better Christians.
3. Religious language nurtures shame. When I was in Youth for Christ, I was taught to find ways to mention God in everyday conversations. I was told this would lead to more significant spiritual conversations and evangelistic opportunities. While that may have been true, I found myself feeling a compulsive guilt whenever I failed to bring God up at least once in every conversation. It was like I had an agenda, an assignment in all my conversations and if I failed to complete that assignment, I was a bad student or didn’t really care about peoples’ souls. It has taken me this long to accept the fact that God loves love… and any relationship that reflects authentic care reflects Him to the same degree.
4. Religious language can alienate. If a newcomer walks into your church and you bombard him with religious jargon you’re sending a message: catch up or get left behind. It creates a clear delineation between the “in group” and the “outsiders”. So if I can’t or won’t use your religious dialect, I may not stick around for very long. Additionally, religious language can be used to alleviate guilt or justify bad behavior. As one famous preacher says, “some of the nastiest letters I’ve ever received are signed, ‘your brother in Christ.’”
Recognize that even in the bible, there was a general difference between the use of religious lingo in speaking and in writing. Let me give you an example:
Paul writing: “Whom God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his beloved son.”
Jesus talking: “God’s kingdom is like a farmer in sewing seeds.”
Peter writing: “In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus.”
Peter talking: “Let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning!
Do you hear the difference in cadence and tone? I don’t think it’s a matter of “dumbing it down” as much as it’s about choosing a whole new set of words to say essentially the same things.
So, if you find Christianese to be second nature, here is some practical advice for unlearning religious jargon:
Speak normally. Recognize that the culture hears religious terminology differently than you or I. Righteousness = self-righteousness. Judgement = judgmentalism. Atonement = @#*%&?! If there’s a clearer, more understandable word, use it.
Drop the KJV. I know you may have grown up hearing, memorizing, and feeling comforted by a bible with Thees and Thous, but the world has moved past that now. If you want to be understood by the other 80% of the culture, “you” will do.
Say it twice. Religious language is meaningless until assigned meaning. If you think a religious term is appropriate, then use it! But also take the time to rephrase it in common English. No need to carry a dictionary around. Just say things like, “Christ became our righteousness… It’s like he knew we couldn’t be good on our own power, so he was good on our behalf.” Saying it twice helps enlighten everyone and it challenges you to think. Do you really know what that term means? Have you really thought about what it means for you? Or are you just copying someone else?
Learn from non-Christians. Pay careful attention to the way people outside your religious community talk about the things you’re interested in as a religious person: love, self-sacrifice, goodness, fairness, heroism, ultimate Reality, etc. Believe it or not, even atheists are interested in what it means to be good, practice justice, pursue truth, and find love. Even if the answers are different, you’ll find we have more in common than we think!
Take the long game. In some ways it’s easier to throw a Christianese sucker punch into your banter with the Walmart clerk than it is to spend time getting to know a non-Christian and caring for them whether they become a Christian or not. Very few of us have felt deeply impacted by the words of strangers. It’s the people we authentically know and respect that we turn to. But there’s an act of self-sacrifice for us in becoming that known and respected person. Because to get there, we have to let go of our religious agendas, our notch-in-the-belt evangelism that counts decision cards rather than relationships. We have to learn to love and respect someone we may not agree with.
I’m not saying it’s easy to unlearn this language. But I am saying it’s worthwhile, even crucial. And the more deeply we personalize our faith, the more honestly we evaluate why WE believe what we believe (that is, your answer, not the “right” answer), the easier it will become to speak in plain English about the spiritual life without resorting to a language as easily misinterpreted and misunderstood as Christianese.
Here are a few other articles and a Youtube Video that relate to the challenge of communicating!
From Intervarsity - How Not to Speak Christianese
Finding it hard to translate what Christians are saying? try this The Dictionary of Christianese
This Youtube Video pokes fun at how often we resort to using Christian-ese
(please laugh, think and don’t take offense)
What do you think Christians can do to better communicate? Have you ever had trouble talking to people about Christ?
Editors note: this article also posted by Nathan Harkness as ”The Problem of Christian-ese and other Religious Dialects” at his blog