Unlearning ‘Christianese’

Life in the Postmodern Shift

November 20, 2019 | Opinion | Volume 23 Issue 21
Troy Watson | Columnist
'It might surprise you how many people are interested in hearing about your faith journey and your God experiences when you share them honestly, clearly and humbly.' (Image by athree23/Pixabay)

“Christianese” is what some people call insider jargon Christians use to talk about God and faith. One of the primary problems with Christianese is that it doesn’t make sense to outsiders. Someone once compared it to legalese, which has its place and purpose, but is confusing and meaningless to people who aren’t lawyers. 

Christianese often takes the form of pat answers and clichés. Like superficial statements athletes say during sports interviews. When athletes say they need to “bring their A game” and “give 110 percent,” they aren’t really communicating anything. Overused clichés are just as empty and meaningless when we’re talking about God. 

Finally, Christianese does more harm than good when talking to most Canadians today. It’s more likely to trigger old wounds and painful memories from their religious past than communicate good news. 

I’m convinced that we must unlearn Christianese and learn anew how to speak about God and faith. We must dare to share our faith journeys and God experiences with honesty, clarity and humility.

For example, when we say things like “I met Christ,” or “I was born again,” what do we really mean by that? What exactly happened when you “met Christ”? Were you in a church service worshipping with others? Were you alone in prayer? Were you gardening or hiking or grieving? And what happened exactly? Did you actually see Jesus? Did you hear a voice? Did you have a vision? What do you mean by “You met Christ”? 

Many Christians haven’t thought through what they mean when they use Christianese terms. The main reason we use such phrases is because it’s how we’ve been taught to talk about God and faith. However, we also use our group’s language to reinforce our sense of belonging to the tribe. Jargon is a prime way our tribe separates the sheep from the goats.

For instance, I was talking with a stranger a few months ago and mentioned being “led by the Spirit.” The person smiled and told me he now knew I was one of them. A few weeks later, I used a feminine pronoun for God and that person smiled and told me she now knew I was one of them.

We all tend to identify who is in our tribe by the language we use. We also use language to communicate to others what tribe we identify with. As a result, our God talk can be inadvertently careless and disingenuous.

It’s important to be mindful and honest when we talk about God and faith. You shouldn’t say “I met Christ” if what you really mean is, “I accepted certain theological beliefs about Jesus as true and now those beliefs are central to my worldview.” They are both legitimate and meaningful statements, but they are different occurrences.

Of course, many Christians say “I met Christ” to refer to an actual encounter. However, it’s important to describe the experience in your own words instead of relying on Christianese clichés.

Here is how one person briefly described their Christ encounter. (You’ll notice they share how the experience impacted and changed them. This increases the clarity of their description, in my opinion.)

The person said: “I was alone praying when I sensed a presence in the room with me. You know that feeling you get when you become aware someone is in the room with you or staring at you. I’d never felt anything like this while praying before, but this presence was as real as anything I’ve ever experienced. I can’t explain it, but I knew it was Jesus. I suppose I knew because I felt love fill the room. Peace surrounded me. Joy erupted within me. I felt as light as a feather. I’ve never felt so free. I’ve sensed Christ’s presence with me ever since that day. 

“Whenever I pay attention to his presence with me, the same peace, love and joy arise within me. Not always as intensely as that first experience, but knowing he is with me always lightens my spirit and helps me get through whatever I’m facing.”

It might surprise you how many people are interested in hearing about your faith journey and your God experiences when you share them honestly, clearly and humbly. Humility is key, though. Humility means sharing your experiences without expecting others to experience God the same way as you. It also means being open and receptive to other people’s stories, experiences and thoughts on God, and regarding them as legitimate as your own. 

Troy Watson is slowly learning how to talk about God and faith without using Christianese.

Read more Life in the Postmodern Shift columns:
Credible Christians
Revolutionary hospitality
The divine flame
Two big surprises, two big questions
Reaching out requires letting in

'It might surprise you how many people are interested in hearing about your faith journey and your God experiences when you share them honestly, clearly and humbly.' (Image by athree23/Pixabay)

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I find I have conversations with spiritually curious people who are somewhat familiar with Christianese, e.g., from Christian summer camp, and that’s about it (plus they’ve been hurt by the Christians they did know).

But when sharing with them, I’ll talk about brokenness, injustice, wrongs—not usually “sin.” I’ll talk about powerful encounters, words that seem to come from elsewhere, moments of sheer beauty, and deep understanding and reconciliation when Jesus’ presence and the work of the Holy Spirit is alive and present—and am specific about what’s happened, rather than use words like “Jesus showed up,” or “the Holy Spirit told me this.” But I let them ask follow-up questions and sometimes then use the “Christian term,” e.g., “This is what Christians mean when they talk about sin.”

The humility bit is key too—thanks for sharing that. I find non-Christians delighted when I talk about not knowing answers and saying that I need Jesus everyday, because I do, but the conversation so easily becomes an “us” thing and not “me over you.”

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