Trimming back the Christianese

by Kristin on January 10, 2012

in Belief, doubt & hope

Photo by snowmentality

Repentance. Blessing. God’s will. Born again.

I was making a list of all the words Christians love to sprinkle into their sentences. For some, reaching for these words and tossing them out is as natural as exhaling while talking. It’s the easy route—the way of habits and tradition and insider cues. It’s a way to sound like we know what we’re talking about even when we don’t.

While I don’t think I fall quite into that category, I admit to having my own favorite words in the Christianese vocabulary. “Redemption” and “grace” top the list. There’s no denying it—all you have to do is search those words on my blog to see how many posts pop up. It simply feels next to impossible to talk or write about my faith journey no, relationship with God no, Christian walk (never mind, you know what I’m referring to, right?) without the words “redemption” and “grace.”

But as is the case with anything we do without much thought, our use of Christian jargon is problematic. At best, we use the words too casually and too often, perhaps at the wrong moments, without knowing exactly where they come from. Christians and non-Christians alike don’t know what we really mean when we use them. At worst, these words are red flags alerting those around us to shut down—to close their ears and minds and then either attack or turn away. Christianese is a polarizing force in the midst of the very situations and discussions that are most desperate for more listening and understanding.

Taking a closer look at red flag words

That’s why I decided to kick off the new year in my Bible & Beer group with a series of discussions about these red flag words. I’m definitely not saying all of the words should be retired and replaced (although there are definitely a handful I’d like to take out of use and just have on display in some Christian history museum). I just think we need to be more aware of what we’re actually saying, and why. We also need to stop assuming that everyone knows what these words mean, or that everyone has the same definition. I suspect a little less jargon and a little more genuine dialogue would go a long ways.

These are the type of questions I’m hoping will guide my group’s discussions around each word:

- How is this word typically used in conversation and writing today?
- What are the connotations of this word, personally and more broadly (for Christians and non-Christians)?
- How/where/when was the word used in the Bible, if at all?
- What are the Greek roots and dictionary definitions of the word?
- How does this word polarize/alienate?
- Is this a word that we might re-define, re-claim, or re-place in our own usage?

I’m sure as we study and discuss these next few months, some of the ideas will make their way into my blog. I’d also love to take your thoughts into our Bible & Beer discussions. What Christian jargon rubs you the wrong way? What words/meanings do you love and want to fully understand and reclaim?

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  • Brad

    Sin. The word has such nasty hell-fire connotations to it. It’s a word that evokes a lot of baggage and guilt. The original Hebrew pictograph for the word “sin” was an archery term that meant “to miss the mark.” That understanding, at least to me, removes a lot of the more powerful and disturbing hell imagery we’ve attached to it.

    When we miss the mark, we’re simply missing the target of the true and real life that God desires for us. When that happens, we simply make the necessary adjustments, take another arrow (they’re limitless) from the quiver and fire again. Following the way of Jesus keeps us focused on the right target. This is much more positive and evokes a lot less guilt. It rings of hope because grace allows us limitless arrows with which to shoot. It calls us forward to shoot at the target, and not backward as we continually look at our failures.

  • Kirstin

    Wow, I’ll be really interested to see what your B & B group comes up with!

    As a non-Christian (these days), I don’t have much trouble with “sin” and “redemption.” Those seem to be terms with fairly clear-cut secular meanings, and the Christian spin on them is easily recognized. I get more annoyed with non-religious people who use the language of “sin” with regard to chocolate desserts.

    “Revelation/revealed” or anything involving “personal relationship” with Christ or God puts my “I may not be able to communicate with this person” warning system on alert. It’s not a deal breaker, by any means, but it does mean that I await further evidence that the person I’m talking to is open-minded and willing to play by the rules of secular rational discourse before I let my guard down.

    “Grace” doesn’t bother me, but then I just don’t know what people mean by it, what content it has, or what weight it carries for Christians beyond its secular meanings.

    “Scripture” (as opposed to “Bible” or “Book of _______” or “New Testament”) signals to me that the person I’m talking to may ascribe a truth-value to the document that I don’t necessarily share.

    “Faith” seems like a word that opens up common ground: the place where people agree on some transcendent reality, even if they differ on the content of that reality. Same with “blessings.”

    “God’s will” raises some problems. Whose God, and how do we know at what point He intervenes in the temporal world to express His will? People who use the term non-ironically seem to already have answers to those questions, which others of us see as up for debate.

  • natalie

    I’ve found that if I allow the other person/people to do more of the dialogue they will cue you into what their belief system is, often without realizing it. I follow their cue. If they are all about the spiritual in the sense that everything is spiritual, there’s a part of me that resonates with that line of thinking — not to the extent of monism, but there is a spirituality in beauty. If I have convinced someone we share common ground before saying something (theological or otherwise) that is offensive, at least, that wasn’t the first impression. In listening, I learn the other person’s preferred jargon; in that, we can discuss and dialogue. If I am determined that my style of communication, my context, and my dialect will determine the conversation….communication can’t happen whether the topic is spirituality or spaghetti.

  • Sam

    I personally have issues with “Sovereign” or “sovereignity”…it makes me automatically shut down. I think “Calvinist!” and run for the hills.

  • Celina

    Our Worship Arts Director always jokes about “fellowship.” No non-Christian wants to fellowship with you…unless you are on an epic quest to destroy an evil ring.

  • Julia Rademacher

    I agree with you about certain terms, phrases, descriptors of faith being used inappropriately or too frequently, which makes it seem inauthentic. I find myself in conversations or in sermons I’ve preached using certain words quite often to illustrate a point, and think ‘Geez, I am saying this word AGAIN?’ I think, though, that on some level this is okay. Growing up as a Norwegian Lutheran, my family and place of worship wasn’t comfortable with expressing our faith. When asked to talk about our ‘faith journey’ (ha!) just being able to squeak-out a fragmented sentence was a monumental accomplishment. I grew up with head nods and hymn singing as a way to express faith. Now, as a pastor, I experience people grasping at ways to express themselves, and some of those ways are using popular expressions: ‘I am so blessed!’ or ‘God is Good!’ or ‘I am a saint and sinner.’ Just for them to be able to express that OUTLOUD in community, is HUGE.

    Having said that, I think popular culture and all of the Joel Osteens of this world have trained some people to think that by using this language that they are somehow MORE blessed or special than others. This irritates me greatly. These are all words found in scripture, and a lot of the time, people use them out of context. Usually when the word blessing is used in scripture, it is talking about God’s life-giving blessing to creation. It only comes from God. So, when someone who is just dolling out the ‘you will be blessed’ schtick to people (again, hello Joel O!) that is not right (in my opinion). I agree that the words we use need to be used in such a way that all people are included in the transformative love of God and creation, and not used to exclude others. Thanks for the post, Kristin!

  • Paul Merrill

    Really really agree with you on this one. That’s what Jon Swanson and I both do over at (I’m only there once a month.)

    Christianese is a language that should be outlawed.

  • Kurt Willems

    If you get really brave, throw the term “inaugurated eschatology” into the flow of a normal conversation…

    Seriously though, good post about an important issue…

  • Sarah Louise

    “Quiet Time” — I never even heard this term until 1989, when I moved away to college. People pray in so many different ways (I do best if I am walking), so being tied down to “Quiet Time” or “Devotionals” instead of what it is: prayer, seems so contrived to me. And also, like the other people have said about other words, they seem like “secret handshake” words, that shut down conversation. Also, it’s easier to boast (as folks do) “I had a great ‘quiet time’” than “I just had a great prayer.” The second sentence sounds odd, because really, prayer is not about performance.

    Thanks for evoking such great conversation, as always, Kristin.


  • Meredith

    One of the words that really irks me – at least in Christian connotations – is “saved.” I think it’s partly because I was raised in a Catholic household and Catholics don’t necessarily use the language of “being saved” (though the idea is certainly there) and it’s probably also partly because I don’t fully understand what some Christians mean when they assert that I’m not saved or won’t be saved. I guess I just really dislike the idea of there being a line in the sand with “saved” people on one side and everyone else on the other. (But then, I’m a pluralist, so anything that smacks of exclusivity irks me.)

    (And Celina’s allusion to Lord of the Rings made me smile.)

  • Jen

    “Saved” – Yes, totally bugs me too. I can’t pinpoint why other than it’s overused and trite now. Yet sometimes I think we have a hard time defining that or finding another way to put it. Who else has been awkwardly asked “Are you saved?” or “When did you get saved?” (or the alternate, “come to Christ”))

    Lately, the whole phrase “I’m just speaking the truth in love” irks me. I saw it in a comment on a blog today. It’s the Christian equivalent of “No offense, but…” :)

    I agree on wanting to keep “grace” and “redemption” around. Perhaps they need polishing in a Christian context, but they are rich with meaning. “Holiness” is another one for me. Not in the “do all these things so you can be okay with God” sense, but in the sense of sacredness, a way of looking at the world.

    Side note: I think you mentioned liking Frederick Buechner a while back… have you read any of his lexicon books? If not, they’re worth checking out. He took words from overused Christianese, theology, and everyday life (as well as people from the Bible) and wrote small pieces that redefine them in a new light. I’m reading an anthology of them all called Beyond Words, and so far, I love his perspective!

  • Ejly

    Thank you again for sharing your insightful thoughts. I have been ruminating about this myself, as an atheist parent trying to help my children not become religiously illiterate. I have to be attuned to religious language in public discourse so that I can interpret it for my kids. Statements regarding redemption, salvation, services, ‘The Book’, fasting, (or keeping kosher, or the sacredness of cows) etc. pass them right by. My sons first encounter with an “Evangelist” was at Apple, and the only fellowship they know involves the One Ring to Rule them All (hat-tip to Celina). I feel that it is important to continue dialog amongst people of diverse (or no) faiths, so to do my part I try to translate these terms into language my kids can understand. I would hope religiously-minded people can also check to see if they’re understood when using such terms, rather than assuming that everyone has the same religious framework.

    On a personal note, I’m conflicted when someone says they will pray for me or asks me to pray for them. I understand it, and genuinely will be grateful for their good thoughts and will offer my good thoughts in return. But when someone says this to me, all I know is that they don’t know me and haven’t bothered to try and know me – and even in their ignorance of me they think it would be good to pray? I really don’t get it. If prayer is supposed to be a personal connection to a deity, shouldn’t it also entail making richer personal connections to the people you know?

  • Ray Hollenbach

    I think the six questions you posed are the essential questions every translator must face. And when it comes to expressing our spiritual convictions we ourselves are engaging in the task of translation. One of the foundational questions in communications theory–on whose behalf do we communicate: ourselves or those we would have hear us?

  • Katie @ cakes, tea and dreams

    The older I get (and the longer I live in the Northeast instead of the Bible belt), the more Christianese bugs me. I think it builds walls instead of facilitating true communication – and these days I cringe whenever I hear the word “saved,” because it’s such an exclusive word. Ugh.

    Have you read Kathleen Norris’ Amazing Grace? She cuts straight to the heart of this issue. Also, this reminds me of the Easter scene from the film Chocolat, where the young priest boldly claims that we should form a religion based on whom we include, not whom we shut out.

    Great, thought-provoking post. Thanks, Kristin.

  • Liz

    One word I am sick of is “believer”

    Are you a believer? Do you think he/she/they are believers? If they were really a believer … A believer should …. They must not be a believer.

    It always seems to be used in a divisive or judgmental way.

  • suzannah {so much shouting, so much laughter}

    i don’t think that i’d agree that the language itself is inherently problematic. every culture has its own language. the Church is different, in that we aren’t some club–we want to be welcoming and to grow. if our language is turning people off by being confusing or exclusive, that’s a problem…but, i look at the “seeker sensitive” movement, and i think stripping churches of symbol, ritual, and anything smacking of “religion” was throwing the baby out of the bath water.

    i agree, phrases like “quiet time” are nails on chalkboard, but redemption and grace are core to our message. we are a peculiar people, and if you strip too much of the language away, you can get a bastardized “gospel” that’s nice…and meaningless.

    (i also worship at an episcopal church–rich on liturgy/mystery/religious language–but not necessary much for the kind of jargon other people reference. so that’s my context. thanks for raising an important conversation:)

  • Jennifer

    I like Suzannah’s comment, and I’m glad I read it before I started my comment/diatribe (tomato/tomahto). I have no problem with the words per se, as much as I have no problem, let’s say, with pink legos. I have a problem with how we use them to beat the hell out of others who don’t agree with us, or to condemn to hell those in our community who are doing/saying/acting in ways we don’t condone. I know people use the word grace a lot. I’m just not sure we all know what it means; know it like we know the way our fingers instinctively search for warmth or the way our eyes know when we need rest.

    That said, I’d like to be in your beer and bible group. Or was is bible and beer?

  • Kristin T.

    Brad, yes! I think many people have issues with the term “sin,” and not because they think they are perfect but because the connotations are often so extreme. I LOVE how you’ve reframed it: When we miss the mark, we’re simply missing the target of the true and real life that God desires for us. When that happens, we simply make the necessary adjustments, take another arrow (they’re limitless) from the quiver and fire again.” I will definitely be quoting you at B&B on “sin night!”

    Kirstin, so much great insight! I’ll definitely be adding “revelation” to our discussion list. It’s strange, because I know on a personal level what it feels like when God is pointing me to something or showing me something, but when people talk about God revealing something I tend to fee very suspicious (unless it’s someone I know well and really respect). Maybe revelation is just a personal thing? (The “God’s will” bit is along the same lines—I love what you’ve said about it.)

    natalie, listening—especially longer and better than we usually do—is such a powerful thing. There’s so much wisdom here: “If I am determined that my style of communication, my context, and my dialect will determine the conversation….communication can’t happen whether the topic is spirituality or spaghetti.” Thanks for sharing it!

    Sam, ha! And I went to Calvin College, not having any idea what I was getting myself into as an 18-year-old with no Calvinist background!

    Celina, if I gave “Best Comment” awards, you would get one—I almost spit out my coffee when I read yours! Thanks for your sense of humor, and for bringing up another good term to look more closely at.

    Julia, that’s such an important perspective to consider—one that expressive, communicative people like me often overlook! You also, however, put a fine point on one aspect of the problem with this language: Often people use it to try to prove something to others—that they are REALLY close to God or REALLY blessed or REALLY part of the “in” group. That’s just divisive.

    Paul, I’ve loved the blog for a long time. Such important work. Thanks for stopping by!

    Kurt, ha! I have a feeling that term just causes lots of eye-rolling more than cringing and red flags. :)

  • ed cyzewski

    Awesome post and great questions. I have two words that irk me:

    Believer: The word that we translate as “believe” in the NT is literally “having faith” or “faithing.” I think belief only captures part of the picture with having faith. With a basic Greek dictionary you can have a lot of fun with this one!

    Biblical: I try to say “biblically-based” or “biblically rooted” since that implies the roots of something in the Bible rather than saying this is the only way to put the Bible into practice.

  • Ron Simkins

    Thanks Kristin – great article and great challenge Just the other day on the news; some society of experts gave their 10 most overused words of 2011 and asked the viewers to try to think of some other way to say it. As with all communication, trying to express an experience that you think was an experience with God is filled with chances to do it poorly. I remember realizing how jargoned philosophers were when I was a grad student in philosophy, and I know how terribly jargoned theologians are as I read them. And, counselors…. oh my! Politicians…we won’t even go there! To use a theological word that C. S. Lewis liked as he attempted to avoid some of the Christianese of his day — I think that our ability to communicate, like all of our wonderful gifts and talents and abilities, also has a “bent” side to it. We are wonderful beings, but we are also a “mess” to use a good word from my southern upbringing. Thanks again for the challenge and the reminder!

  • A

    As a non-Christian, I couldn’t agree more with what you’re saying here…..I can hear alarm bells going off in my mind when I hear/read/see some of these words. It does put up walls, because the immediate sense I get is that this person is really “good” or this is the best way to be. So why not just talk about being good or being your best self? I have to admit that this is also what prevents me from reading the latest book at the library that looks great, but is dubbed Christian fiction and has its jacket peppered with all sorts of Christianese.

    I’m glad you bring up issues like this, thanks for posting!


  • Kristin T.

    Sarah Louise, you made great points here! These types of words do shut others out, make boasting more natural, and suggest that there are right ways of going about something (such as “quiet time”). Thanks for putting a finer point on these ideas.

    Meredith, yep, I take issue with anything that draws a line in the sand, too. “I guess I just really dislike the idea of there being a line in the sand with ‘saved’ people on one side and everyone else on the other.” And that’s one of the main problems with this word, is that it can almost never be just about an individual and their take on their own “position,” it always has a way of also saying something about someone else.

    Jen, this one made me laugh: “I’m just speaking the truth in love.” YES! It’s just a slightly nicer way of saying “God told me something I’m supposed to tell you, so even though it’s hurtful, don’t blame me.” (And yes, I love Buechner’s writing. Somehow I missed “Beyond Words”—I’ll definitely have to check it out. Thanks!)

    Ejly, that’s a really tricky place to be, as a parent. I love your approach: “I feel that it is important to continue dialog amongst people of diverse (or no) faiths, so to do my part I try to translate these terms into language my kids can understand. I would hope religiously-minded people can also check to see if they’re understood when using such terms, rather than assuming that everyone has the same religious framework.” YES! Thanks for your honesty.

    Ray, I would love to know more about how translators really do their work. I think to most of us it feels like they’re doing something much more scientific than they are. At any rate, you bring up a really important point: being honest and asking ourselves “On whose behalf do I communicate?” How ironic that communication is all about connecting with others, but it’s so prone to being a selfish practice.

    Katie, a big yes to this: “[Christianese] builds walls instead of facilitating true communication.” (And yes, I have read Norris’ Amazing Grace—now I’m inspired to pull it off the bookshelf again.)

    Liz, yep, it’s an us-them word. And another problem with it is that it doesn’t leave room for doubt or transition. It’s so black and white, suggesting you can only be a believer or a non-believer. While there are aspects of my faith and belief that are foundational, my full understanding and belief seems to be a living, shifting force. I need to acknowledge where I am, not cover it over with a blanket term.

    suzannah, I absolutely agree about the potential of throwing the baby out with the bath water. There are a handful of words that have become far too closely tied to Christian belief even thought they don’t have solid biblical roots, but there are so many I’d like to redeem. :) (There’s that great word!) I think the best way to do it is for us all to keep telling our own stories around these words, in honesty and truth. There was a time when the word “redemption” didn’t mean anything to me—it was jargon—but now it does, and there’s a story there.

    Jennifer, preach it, sister! I completely agree: “I have a problem with how we use them to beat the hell out of others who don’t agree with us, or to condemn to hell those in our community who are doing/saying/acting in ways we don’t condone.” The fact that words associated with Christianity are often words that give people leverage and power over others is a maddening, sad irony.

  • Kristin T.

    ed, I will make sure “Believer” is at the center of an upcoming Bible & Beer discussion. And I am definitely guilty of using the term “biblical” to indicate that some idea or story comes from the Bible, but I completely see how limiting and misleading that can be. I like “biblically rooted” (it’s just too bad that “biblically” is such a clumsy word…or it’s too bad that I’m so darn picky about words).

    Ron, you’re absolutely right! Politicians, counselors, financial advisors…there are so many groups of people who fall into “jargon traps” that make everyone who is listening glaze over. Often jargon is innocent—just a result of laziness and habit. But when it’s used to obfuscate the truth, or to shut people out or even criticize them, we need to be on high alert, especially as Christians.

  • Kristin T.

    A, you’ve described the feeling perfectly: “It does put up walls, because the immediate sense I get is that this person is really ‘good’ or this is the best way to be.” Which, in turn, communicates that anyone else who is doing anything different is bad, or at least wrong. I just don’t get how that fits with Christians whose main objective is spreading the “good news.”

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