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Learning to Speak a New Language

Learning to Speak a New Language

Few things are more frustrating than travelling in a foreign country and struggling to communicate. Relying on hand signals, fumbling with a bilingual dictionary, or depending on a translator may help, but it’s not as effective as conducting a conversation with another person who speaks the same “heart” language.

Unfortunately, many of us don’t have to travel far to experience the frustration of not being understood. It happens every Sunday morning in churches across the street and around the world where Christianese is spoken.

Christianese is a foreign language composed of Christian clichés. We sing about being “washed in the blood,” we seek out “prayer warriors,” and we plan how to take back “enemy territory.” We hope for “stars in our crown,” moan about “carrying our cross,” and rejoice when someone has “asked Jesus into their heart.”

Then we wonder why visitors make a beeline for the exit and never return.

Effective communication requires an effort to speak in a way that doesn’t have the listener reaching for a bilingual dictionary. But as we try to correct the problem in many ministries, the pendulum has swung to the other extreme.

In the name of relevancy, we have a new vocabulary. We speak of happiness and success in place of joy and satisfaction. We distribute “programs” and adorn the “stage” with props.

No wonder visitors, holding a program and facing a stage, think of worship leaders as entertainers and pastors as performers. And when the singers fail to entertain and the pastor fails to perform to Broadway standards, those visitors also make a beeline for the exit, never to return.

Speaking a foreign language becomes a barrier to sharing the good news of the gospel in our churches. But the reverse—speaking the world’s language—offers people a mere imitation of what they already have. Problem is, it has already proven dissatisfying, or they wouldn’t be visiting our churches searching for something different.

So what’s the solution? Consider these steps:

1. Recognize 

Recognize the clichés in your ministry. Whether the words are Christianese or lifted from our contemporary culture, clichés have weaseled their way into our use, both in our printed materials and in our teaching. It may take some dedicated time and an old-fashioned yellow highlighter to identify where they are hiding.

2. Reflect

Determine the essence of what you are trying to communicate. Christian clichés are popular because they are a shorthand version of what we want to say. That is, until someone from the “outside” joins us. Then that same word or phrase becomes a barrier to communication.

On the other hand, when we borrow words from our culture, they may drag along associations we didn’t intend. Those associations often include performance-related expectations based on previous experiences.

3. Rewrite

Rewrite your materials. Take the time to search for the right words or phrases to convey your intent. Consider starting with a blank page rather than attempting to replace individual words. Usually the meaning of what we are trying to communicate will require more words than the original Christianese cliché or the phrase borrowed from our culture.

As you substitute new words, be aware of your target. Are the people you are trying to reach traditional or contemporary? GenX or Baby Boomers? Don’t presume that Baby Boomers will only respond to Christianese or that GenXers are only interested in phrases derived from the contemporary culture.

For this process to be most effective, it’s best not to try to accomplish it alone. We’re all susceptible to blind spots, especially when it comes to material we originally created. Gather your ministry team for their input. Include people across generational lines to ensure a broad perspective.

People come to our ministries because they are hungry for something they have not yet received. Pique their appetite with tasty morsels carefully prepared just for them, instead of a fast-food menu of clichés. Feed them nourishing meals instead of the empty calories found in contemporary buzzwords.

The Church has served as a light in a dark world for two thousand years. Her influence has grown fastest when she offered something—Someone—different from what the culture offered. Her influence diminished when she either detached herself from the culture or copied it.

Are we confident enough in our Savior to be different and relevant at the same time? The best thing we can do in formatting our communications is to let the Church be the Church, neither copying the world nor isolating ourselves from it. Then we’ll fulfill our privilege of accomplishing the great work of the Kingdom…one message at a time.

DRAva Pennington teaches a Bible Study Fellowship class. She is also the author of Daily Reflections on the Names of God: A Devotional, published by Revell Books and endorsed by Kay Arthur.

Publication date: March 12, 2014