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The Danger of Christianese

How our church language can do more to exclude people than draw them to Jesus.

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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!

A Cover-Up?

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?

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Nicole Unice

Nicole Unice is a TCW regular contributor. Nicole is on the ministry staff of Hope Church and author of She's Got Issues. She writes for a variety of magazines and speaks nationwide at retreats and leadership events. Nicole and her husband Dave have three children. You can find her blogging about honest living at NicoleUnice.com.

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The Danger of Christianese