People who attend church regularly often are bilingual, usually without realizing it.
As a young child, I began noticing that folks who attend church regularly tend to use a “normal” vocabulary throughout the week.
When they step foot on the church campus or attend a church function, they often resort to a specialized repertoire of words that are not easily understood by those outside the community of faith.
Because it seems abnormal to me for a person to use one vocabulary at work and leisure and revert to another when in the presence of your church friends or minister, I have quietly loathed all flavors of hyperspiritual dialects.
I confess that, on occasion, I have cynically identified and labeled a few of those more frequently heard church dialects as “King James jargon,” “lingo of Zion,” “ecclesial English” and “pious pontification.”
Recently, I came across an old newspaper clipping that identifies one of these more frequently employed dialects as “Christianese” – a language used in the Christian subculture and usually understood only by other members of that subculture.
As Christian communicators, it’s important to avoid words in our writing that could be misunderstood or fail to communicate – terms that have meaning only in the Christian subculture.
As a public service to the uninitiated, here are some common phrases used in the church, along with their English-language equivalents, that I read years ago in a local newspaper with the attribution “author unknown.”
Christianese: “If it be God’s will.”
Translation: “I really don’t think God is going to answer this one.”
Christianese: “Let’s have a word of prayer.”
Translation: “I am going to pray for a long, long, long time.”
Christianese: “That’s not my spiritual gift.”
Translation: “Find someone else.”
Translation: “Organized gluttony.”
Christianese: “The Lord works in mysterious ways.”
Translation: “I’m totally clueless.”
Christianese: “Lord willing …”
Translation: “You may think I’ll be there, but I won’t.”
Christianese: “I don’t feel led.”
Translation: “Can’t make me.”
Christianese: “God led me to do something else.”
Translation: “I slept in instead of going to church.”
Christianese: “God really helped me with this test.”
Translation: “I didn’t study but I guessed good so I’m giving God credit in the hope that He helps me again.”
Christianese: “She has such a sweet spirit!”
Translation: “What an airhead!”
Christianese: “I have a ‘check’ in my spirit about him.”
Translation: “I can’t stand that jerk!”
Christianese: “I’ll be praying for you.”
Translation: “There’s an outside chance I’ll remember this conversation later today.”
Christianese: “Prayer concerns.”
Christianese: “In conclusion … ”
Translation: “I’ll be done in another hour or so.”
Christianese: “Let us pray.”
Translation: “I’m going to pretend to talk to God now, but I’m really preaching at you.”
Christianese: “You just have to put it in God’s hands.”
Translation: “Don’t expect me to help you.”
Christianese: “God wants to prosper you!”
Translation: “Give me all your money.”
My point is that words really do matter.
The New Testament was originally written in “koine” Greek, the everyday language of ordinary people, which says to me that the greatest news in the world can be communicated without a specialized religious vocabulary.
The wisdom writer reminds us that, “A person finds joy in giving an apt reply – and how good is a timely word!” (Proverbs 15:23).
This year, as a part of my quest to be a more engaged listener, a more effective speaker and a more faithful follower of Jesus, I am seeking to learn to be a better steward of my words.
And, of course, to avoid reverting to Christianese. “Carest thou to joineth me?”
Barry Howard serves as a leadership coach with the Center for Healthy Churches and a pastoral counselor with the Faith and Hope Center. He is a member of the Baptist Center for Ethics board of directors and recently retired as the pastor of First Baptist Church of Pensacola, Florida. A version of this article first appeared on his blog, Barry’s Notes, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @BarrysNotes.
Pastor at the Wieuca Road Baptist Church in Atlanta. He also serves as a leadership coach and columnist for the Center for Healthy Churches.