I spent my first few weeks as a college freshmen overwhelmed by the subculture of fraternity and sorority life. It seemed like the minute I stretched my sheets over my vinyl dorm-room mattress, sorority rush began. The whole system was literally Greek to me. I couldn't pronounce the letters and I had no idea what many of the terms meant.
I remember listening from my doorway as the many girls on the hall prepared to attend a rush event. Hearing their chat about words like Pan-Hellenic, legacies, and Ro-Chis only added to my confusion. As the rushing season progressed, my mood progressed from perplexed to annoyed to frustrated at my Greek language barrier. Naturally, this barrier was divisive and exclusive.
Now I often find myself on the other side of a language barrier: that of the churched and unchurched. This time, I am dismayed to find myself in the group that naturally divides and excludes. Yet this is the reality of what happens when I don't watch my words as a Christian. Beware the danger of Christianese!
Fellowship. Quiet Time. The Flesh. Devotions. These words represent just a small sampling of the language of Christianity—easily defined by long-time followers, and incredibly baffling to those outside the Christian culture.
Years of church leadership, seminary training, or professional ministry can desensitize us to how language can exclude and isolate us from the rest of the world. What seasoned Christian can't define agape love? Yet to many we desire to reach, these words are just Greek! Urban dictionary, a popular user-driven website that defines slang, says Christianese "is the language spoken by Christians. It makes no sense to anyone unfamiliar with biblical texts, but earns you major points in the eyes of other Christians." This outsider perspective stings because it's partially true.
Our Christian language develops because we strive to find words for the invisible realities in our lives. We rightfully use biblical terms to understand and give form to the growth and change of our inner nature. But there is a dark side: our Christian-only words can tempt us to avoid the reality of our spiritual lives. We can hide behind our words as a cover for spiritual dryness or despair. We can make nice talk, feel like good Christians, and avoid looking too closely at our own hearts. Sounds a bit pharisaical, doesn't it?
What Does That Really Mean?
As Christians, we would do well to notice Jesus' teaching methods. He used words and illustrations plucked from the daily life of the Judean culture—farming, family, festivals. As leaders and teachers, we must rigorously examine our words, seek to use culture to provide images for our theology, and strive to break down any obstacles that can keep someone from finding Christ.
Several years ago, I was counseling with a young woman serving full-time in a church. During our first session, she offered this observation of her struggles: "Over the past year I've experienced the redemptive qualities of grace."
I nodded my agreement, meanwhile thinking, I have no idea what that really means. And I'm not sure she did either.
Back then, my own insecurity kept me from probing that young woman's statements further. Today, I'd likely press her to give me more words to describe what she'd been experiencing. What does redemptive grace look like to her? Can she give me an example? How is it playing out in her life? What other words would she use to describe the change in her?
It's all too easy to hide behind our washed-in-the-blood, princess-for-Jesus verbiage. Instead, let's consider our words thoughtfully, strive to promote understanding with those who don't speak the language, and be brutally honest with ourselves before we choose the easy way of Christianese.
Speaking our hearts in plain English will stretch our theology, challenge our complacency, and help us to emulate the apostle Paul, translated by Eugene Peterson's The Message: "I kept my bearings in Christ—but I entered their world and tried to experience things from their point of view. I've become just about every sort of servant there is in my attempts to lead those I meet into a God-saved life."
Nicole Unice is a TCW regular contributor and a contributing editor for GiftedforLeadership.com and works in family and student ministry for Hope Church in Virginia. She is the author of She's Got Issues. www.nicoleunice.com