Turning Christianese

christianeseEvery time the new year rolls in, Time Magazine holds a humorous reader poll to ask the American public which words should be banned from the English language. I’m not sure why the American public should be allowed to vote on this matter, because I’m pretty sure the American public is the source of these nasty earworms in the first place. In previous years of the Time Magazine poll, the American public has voted out text speak “OMG,” the nasty rump shaking craze “twerk” and the most easily discernible life observation of all time: “YOLO.” Because – you know – no one’s ever died twice. For real.

This year, Time Magazine’s list of words to potentially be “banned” included such cultural idioms and worn-out catchphrases as “bae,” “bossy,” “turnt,” “said no one ever” and “om nom nom nom.” Time Magazine also got into some hot water for humorously suggesting that the word “feminist” by eliminated from the English language. Oops.

(For the record, I think that “bae” should clearly be “banned” this year. Any word developed simply because it’s lazier to pronounce one syllable instead of two simply must go. By 2025, we’ll be a monosyllabic culture for sure. But I digress …)

Christians, it’s time to start voting some of our own secret language off the island too. You know, the “Christianese” words and phrases that only people who grew up in church understand. “Christianese” is the secret code language that Christians use like the Freemasons use secret handshakes (or do they?). You can tell whether someone has been inoculated into the Christian subculture simply by the way that they speak.

So here’s thirteen Christianese terms that I would suggest that we stop using in 2015. I’m sure there’s many additional phrases that belong on this list, but allow me to pick on these pet peeves for a moment:

  1. “He’s still on the throne”: Thank you Captain Obvious. Christians usually roll this phrase out to attempt to reassure someone going through a hard time. The intent is well-meaning. But when a family member has died or a doctor just informed someone they have inoperable cancer, folks undergoing grief and pain need a listening ear, prayer and your physical presence more than trite catchphrases and misappropriations of Romans 8:28.
  2. “I’ll pray for you”: Usually Christians use this phrase when they mean the exact opposite. Chatty old Margaret from church has cornered you in the church parking lot at the end of the prayer meeting. Your stomach impolitely won’t cease rumbling … Your youngest child is screaming from his carseat … Your wife is rolling her eyes and pointing to her watch … Your heart already belongs to Chic-Fil-A. But dear, sweet Margaret won’t stop talking about her boyfriend’s niece’s hairdresser’s infected goiter. You need an exit strategy. You utter the ultimate conversation shut-down: “I’ll pray for him.” Conversation over. But do you really mean it? Probably not … But now the family can get along to its sweet tea and chicken tenders. If you’re going to actually take the time to pray for someone, go ahead and say “I’ll pray for you.” But if you have zero intention of actually praying for someone, just tell them something genuine instead of dishonest … Like “I wish I could keep listening but I’ve got to somewhere else to go.”
  3. Anything related to “open doors” or “closed doors”: There is no door. It’s a figment of your imagination. Just prayerfully do something. The end.
  4. “Jesus wants a relationship – not a religion”: Arguably the greatest oversimplification of Christianity ever uttered. And simply absurd, unclear and untrue. It’s really like saying “my wife wants a relationship – but not marriage.” My wife would slap me, because she does wants commitment. And Jesus does too. This phrase is simply code language in hipster churches for “you don’t have to be too committed to Jesus like those fundamentalists,” which is Biblically inaccurate (see Luke 14:25-35). Right, let’s start producing some marginally committed people loosely affiliated with Jesus … I’m sure that’ll work out well. And it’s also a confusing and unhelpful phrase for the unchurched attempting to understand what Christianity is all about. If the term “religion” simply means an organized collection of beliefs about the world (see: dictionary), then – yes – Christianity is a religion because (surprise) we have organized beliefs about the world. Sometimes a spade is a spade. And here’s the kicker: The Bible describes Christianity as religion (see James 1:27). Stop the insanity.
  5. “Hedge of protection”: Because in a car crash, a shrubbery probably will not protect you. Pray for the airbags to properly function. Because #YOLO.
  6. “Traveling mercies”: Are there multiple categories of mercies? Are there some other types of mercies I should be praying for? And are “traveling mercies” the opposite of “loafing around in my sweatpants while sleeping in on Saturday mercies”? I could use more of those.
  7. Any terminology for a room in a church facility that does not exist in any other plane of reality: Like “narthex.” Narthex sounds like a prescription drug that alleviates indigestion: “Honey, did you remember to take your narthex?” Or “sanctinasium” and “gymuary” … Which really means that your church hangs out in a gym because you can’t afford a sanctuary. Or “fellowship hall” … A term which single-handedly and permanently associated Biblical koinonia with friend chicken. In the real world, it’s called a “cafeteria.” Or a “crying room.” Who’s crying? Should I be crying? Should I anticipate crying at this worship service? Do I need tissues? In all seriousness, could we possibly use any term that sounds more like “our church hates you and your crying baby”? I mean, even Chic-Fil-A and McDonalds don’t even have a “crying room,” and there’s usually a lot of babies crying there.
  8. “God has led me somewhere else”: Meaning God really hasn’t led me somewhere else, but I’m bringing God’s name into it so you won’t challenge me.
  9. “Missional”: Which really is a condescending way of saying that our church REALLY serves Jesus through its commitment to social justice and your church is a bunch of pansies hosting a tea party. Boom.
  10. “Unspoken prayer request”: Other than church, name one place where we ask someone to do something but don’t tell them exactly what they’re supposed to be doing. I never say to my wife: “Honey, please fix me something extremely specific for dinner … but I’m not going to give you any hint whatsoever about that extremely specific thing I want you to make.” It’s a recipe for disaster. And it is for prayer too. If we really took Galatians 6:2 seriously, “unspoken prayer requests” should never exist.
  11. “I’m not gifted in that area”: Meaning I’d rather set my hair on fire than work with kids.
  12. “Community”: OK … This one really makes me want to rip my hair out. The old school traditional church talks about the mellowship of “fellowship” … A term which engenders visions of fried chicken, one crockpot meals and opaque jello casseroles in the aforementioned “fellowship hall.” To establish a contrast, the kool kids have developed a new word for Biblical fellowship to distance themselves from traditional church: “Community.” Here’s the problem: Clearly, the term “fellowship” is pretty alien to the outside world … But the phrases “community” or “life in community” or “living in community” have virtually zero meaning outside of church either. Not one single unchurched person texts their BFF: “I have a real desire for authentic community today so let’s go see Anchorman 2 together.” Not one single unchurched person meets a friend at Starbucks because they want to “do life together.” To the contrary, I have heard unchurched people talk about spending time with others or – as the 90s kids called it – “hanging out.” Can’t we just talk like normal people? I really want to do life separately from anyone who suggests that we do life together.
  13. “Be authentic” or “be real”: For crying out loud, don’t be authentic, be you, be real, be transparent or be yourself. The only thing you to need to be is to be Christ. So imitate Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1). And lead others to imitate Christ. We need less of you (and me) and more of Jesus. If you’re busy being yourself, then you’re not focusing on being Christ.

So upon closer examination, “Christianese” really falls into two categories with two different problems: (a) Complete gibberish; and (b) Polite lies.

In the case of the complete gibberish (i.e. “unspoken prayer request” or “hedge of protection”), the problem is that Christians have created their own distinct culture with its own terminology and taxonomy. The only purpose that this specialized language really serves is to clearly communicate with others involved in our little Christian club … And to ostracize others who only speak the vernacular. It’s like walking into a hospital room, hearing the laundry list of medical terms and realizing that you’re not qualified to be a doctor or nurse. If an unchurched person walked into your church’s worship service or small group program and heard the discussion, would they feel like they’re not qualified to be a Christian? How much confusion do we create for the unchurched by forcing them to learn our secret code language and trying to figure out where in the world the narthex is? If our language reinforces an “in crowd” vs. “out crowd” mentality, it’s time to change the way that we speak.

In the case of the polite lies (i.e. “I’m not gifted in that area” or “I’ll pray for you”), we need to realize they are lies. They might be polite, but they area still lies. When we put protection of someone’s feelings over the truth, then we have made the wrong decision. Ephesians 4:15 informs us that speaking the truth and loving someone are not mutually exclusive concepts. We can speak truth in a genuinely loving fashion, and sometimes the most loving things to do is to speak a difficult truth into someone’s life. We would do well to remember that both the words of mouth and the meditation of our hearts should be pleasing to God (Psalm 19:14). Imagine the damage we actually do when we say that we will pray and we don’t. And imagine what would happen if we really did pray.

Believers, let’s commit to speaking clearly and thoughtfully in 2015 and beyond.