When familiar dialect becomes exclusive colloquialism
Christian brother or sister, I wrote this for you and me. This Easter season I am spending my quiet time reflecting as a new woman on the holy Gospel of Christ Jesus. I thank the Lord for the sanctification that I found in Christ when I accepted him into my heart and was born again, for the propitiation of my transgressions. As I eat the body and drink the blood, I am humbled by his righteous gift. Because of his bruises I am healed, and because he paid my debt now I am free. On Maundy Thursday, he broke the bread so I could be washed by the blood. On Good Friday, he died on a tree for me. Saturday he stared death in the face. Sunday he came back to life, and He is risen indeed! As he walks beside me, I know that because he bore the sins of the world upon the tree, now I can follow him, carry my cross, fight the good fight, and finish the race.
I believe every word of what I just wrote. I am truly amazed and thankful by what Jesus has done. However… I don’t think that’s the way to talk with people who don’t already know the lingo. Who might not feel included in the club of Christianity. Let me be clear: the intended audience for this blog post is not my unchurched friends. I want to write to Bible belting Christians by religion and practice, who also say that they want to follow Christ’s example and who want to obey the call to share the Gospel. If you get my drift, follow the idioms and track with the references, you probably fit into this category. I’m not setting out to offend anyone, but I do want to honestly convict those in my community of faith. It is important to communicate effectively and lovingly, rather than intrusively or with a sense of elitism.
It’s time to define a word that has become a colloquialism among us – one which has not yet made its way into Webster’s dictionary. “Christianese” is the term given to a body of language which is used primarily by and among those who adhere to the religion of Christianity. This dialect often includes words and phrases that are most often known and understood by followers of the religion, but not always clear to those who do not subscribe to that faith. Unfortunately, the term did make it into the Urban Dictionary. I won’t link it here, but if you’re curious, go ahead and google it. I hope that after reading this article, and seeing the definitions written there, that you will understand my desire to knock our Christian subculture verbiage on its face.
I was privileged to grow up in a Christian home, with parents who were strong believers and who were at the church so often that it was a second house to me. From the time I was born, I was fully emerged in Christianity, from the books that we read daily to the church programs, groups and Bible studies. Holidays and traditions were centered on Jesus. Parties and trips began and ended with prayer. One of my favorite pastimes with my family is Lifelight Music Festival, where we heard and saw musicians from many Genres of Christian Music on several different stages while we camped in the nearby field or camp ground. My undergrad degree is from a private Christian University, and I have a Minor in Biblical Studies. Now, as a youth pastor’s wife, I am still blessed by continual Christian community and conversation. That said, it is safe to say that I have been immersed in and am fully versed in Christianese.
The Lord has blessed me immeasurably by the good things he has placed in my life and the closeness I have always had with Christianity and fellow believers. This is a good thing. However, I want to keep myself aware that it can become a hinderance to me if I let it become one. When I was at College, I remember talking with other classmates about the “Christian Bubble.” This was a term we gave to the campus that felt so safe and provided for us everything we thought we could need, from food, to lodging, to community, and even our future spouses. The double-edged sword, though, is that when we stayed in our “Christian Bubble,” we often were unaware of what was happening in the rest of the world. To my shame, I remember hearing four days late about a natural disaster that had hit a very large part of a coastal country overseas. Outside of my bubble, people were doing things to help the affected including sending food through non-profit organizations, sending money and prayers, and writing articles that would bring others to action. Yet, I had been so consumed with what was going on immediately in my sphere of influence with people that I suspected had futures in Heaven, that I failed to be aware and to minister to those outside of the bubble.
In Matthew 28:19-20, Jesus commissioned his disciples to “…Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you…” This is often referred to as the Great Commission. And it is a great thing that he has commanded, both because it is something to create awe, it is also a big responsibility. I have committed my life to follow Jesus, and this means that it is my purpose to obey this great commission. That is why I want to continue to convict myself as well as my Christian community that we need to speak in a way that will be understood – genuinely, lovingly, inclusively. There are ears that will not hear, no matter how we say the gospel, and God can use whatever we say to accomplish his work in the hearer’s souls. However, would it not be better if we could use understandable words to communicate effectively the first time?
Fortunately, Christianese is more like a dialect, and less like a separate language. Unfortunately, sometimes we get caught up in thinking that because there is no language change, there will be no misunderstandings. It’s difficult for me to think about how someone would not understand the way I speak unless I think about when I don’t understand someone else’s dialect. For example, I went to England a few years ago and from time to time I would hear a conversation happening near me in which both participants spoke English, but were talking so quickly and saying words or phrases that were foreign to me. Their dialect was near impossible for me to track with. If that has ever happened to you, it’s likely that you would smile and nod like I did, giving the speakers no indication that you did not understand. What a shame it would be for you to tell a dear friend about the good news of Christ and watch the person smile and nod back at you, later to realize that they had no idea what you were trying to say!
The most effective proven way to learn a language or a dialect is to immerse yourself in that language or dialect. To learn Mexican Spanish, spend time in Mexico. To learn the dialect of Spanish spoken in Spain, spend time there. To learn the dialects of the world, pay attention to their media and listen to them talk. One way to do this is to read books that are popular with the audience you are trying to learn. Watch a tv show or two, a movie, simply sit in a coffee shop and eavesdrop a bit (I know, that’s pretty sketchy, but if you put in some headphones and pretend to read, you won’t look as strange as you feel). I am not saying that you need to start swearing, or that you should participate in anything that is not worthy of Philippians 4:8. I am not advocating that you pick up 50 Shades of Grey or start watching excessively violent or pornographic material. There are things of the world that you can enjoy without compromising your personal values but that will help you to learn a different way to talk about the gospel. Yet, if you’re shunning anything not specifically “Christian,” how do you expect to communicate with any person in the world who is not specifically “Christian”?
Sometimes groups of “nerds” make up their own dialects. For example, if you ask me about my typographic sensibilities or mention the line-height or kerning of Baskerville, you will probably hear a lot of words from me that might make you to laugh because they don’t make any sense to someone who has not studied typefaces. I dare not ask an engineer a question about mechanical infrastructures if I intend to carry on a 2-sided conversation with that person and you will probably never find me trying to indulge an Anime fan about their passion, because I know that I will not understand those dialects. Sometimes, being a “nerd” is fun. However, when we’re nerds about Christ, (People of a certain generation call them “Jesus Freaks”) and we’re not careful, I think we scare people away because they are afraid that they won’t understand us, or they don’t understand us when we speak the Gospel. It is a very good thing to be excited about what He has done for us. We should be ecstatic about it all the time, and we should share it! It’s amazing and He is amazing! But let’s also try to include our friends who aren’t in the nerd club yet. Let’s tell them what we know and why we know it and say it in a way that instead of feeling excluded or frustrated they feel loved.