There’s a phenomenon within the Christian culture that involves a lot of catchphrases. These are phrases that are more than likely meaningless to anyone outside of the church walls (and often even to those in it) because they are the “right” answers, the easy things to say, the appropriate “Sunday School answers.” (In fact, I’d say that calling them Sunday School answers is, itself, Christianese.) In my mind, it’s akin to jargon. If I describe literature using certain terms, you might think that I know my stuff. But if I use those same terms around other English majors, they’ll push me to go beyond the facade of easy definition to really analyze the piece, because those terms are essentially meaningless without deeper exploration. Jargon is useful on occasion, but ultimately it often belies a deeper meaner or doesn’t tell the whole story.
Urban Dictionary defines Christianese as “A communicable language within the Christian subculture with words and phrases created, redefined, and / or patened that applies only to the Christian sphere of influence,” or, more simply, “Christian buzzwords.” I think both in church and in our culture at large there are some words that we’ve simply overused, to the point that they’ve begun to lose any meaning they once had.
I’ve gone through phases in my life, depending on what church groups I’ve been surrounded by at the time, where I’ve definitely found myself using more of these church-y terms. One I tend to fall prey to using is “feeling convicted.” Theologically, feeling convicted is a deep-seated realization of sin, a willingness to turn around and run the opposite direction, an inner revival of righteousness. But in reality, we often say we feel convicted when what we really mean is that we feel bad or that we acknowledge that we made a mistake. I think sometimes Christians are guilty of doing this with prayer, too. When something bad happens, it’s easy to say, “Well, I’ll be praying for you.” But I often wonder how many of us actually follow through on that. And if we don’t follow through, it’s not really much of a comfort.
Christianese is often made up of empty words.
But I read an interesting blog post recently (well, really, I read a blurb of the post in a comment on another blog and then sought out the original post in order to write this) that asked, “Is Christianese really bad?” The author wrote, “After my miscarriage, sometimes I had no words of my own. I was unable to form coherent thoughts and put words to my feelings. I think this is a common occurrence during grief. […] [O]nce I was able to borrow the words of Scripture to express my grief, I thought and spoke in Christianese a lot. But you know what? I didn’t give a rip. I had words, and I had words that were both helpful and true. So, I sounded like an 80-year-old church lady. Oh well.”
Her statement resonated with me because I had that happen recently. One night last week I was feeling overwhelmingly lonely. While I’m settling into our new life pretty well and beginning to feel like I have some routines and everyday joys, I miss having friends around to whom I don’t have to explain myself. I find it exhausting to have to always be “on” when we go out with people and when I volunteer and every time I go anywhere. There’s a lot to be said for friends who know you so well that you don’t have to cover all the details every time you see them. And I was craving that. So somewhat in desperation (which is unfortunately characteristic of when I tend to do this), I opened my Bible and I turned to Psalm 139.
O Lord, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways.
He is familiar with all my ways. Christianese. But Truth. And somehow, that night, those words were just what I needed to hear. Someone knows me. And I was comforted. So while I agree that Christianese is far from all good, I also don’t think it’s all bad. I think there are times when the right words, the easy words, are okay, because they are true. I think it’s valid to be careful of overusing Christianese, but I’m going to give myself the freedom to delve into now and again, as long as it’s the Truth.
What vocabularies do you find yourself using that you’re skeptical of? Have you struggled with using or hearing Christianese? What are some phrases we overuse to the point of making them meaningless?