Stop Speaking Christianese, Please

Alan Shlemon

Commercial airplanes are extremely safe these days. Still, sending 100,000 lbs. of metal into the atmosphere at 600 mph demands attention to safety. But when a flight attendant starts the safety briefing, I ignore it. All I hear is, “Blah blah blah blah.” I’m not the only one. People put on noise-canceling headphones, turn to chat with their neighbor, or scroll through their social media feed. Why? Isn’t the safety briefing full of vital information? Wouldn’t heeding its advice potentially save your life in an emergency? Yes. Then why does no one pay attention?

People have heard it before. They think they know it. Honestly, nobody cares.

That’s why many airlines today have developed a new approach to keep passengers’ attention. Turkish Airlines hired famous YouTube personality and digital magic artist Zach King. Their safety video includes Zach performing illusions to keep passengers engaged. British Airways adds comedy by incorporating Mr. Bean into their video. Korean Air features the Korean pop sensation, BTS. Air New Zealand uses characters from The Hobbit. Airlines have learned how to keep people’s attention focused on the important safety information they want to convey to their passengers. They’ve learned their lesson, but have Christians?

Believers face a similar problem. We try to tell non-Christians valuable truths about the Christian faith: “Jesus died for your sins. Put your faith in him. He, alone, is holy.” All that non-Christians hear is, “Blah blah blah blah.” Unlike on an airplane, they’re at least looking at you. They’re still not understanding what you’re saying, though. Why? You’re speaking Christianese. It’s parlance they’re unfamiliar with.

Christianese is the language Christians speak at church and to other Christians. It has two characteristics. One, it’s churchy. It contains theologically loaded lingo that is understandable to Christians but largely incoherent to non-Christians. Two, it’s full of clichés and idioms. Christians use phrases that take little effort to articulate but a lot of effort to apprehend. Non-Christians end up doing what everyone does on an airplane: They turn off their attention.

Consider words like “faith,” “holy,” or “sanctify.” Their meaning is clear to us but unclear to others. Phrases like “sin nature,” “lack of fruit,” or “struggling with” mean something to us but often mean something different to others. Even the common message we tell non-Christians, “Jesus died for your sins,” sounds straightforward to us but leaves non-Christians wondering, Who is Jesus? What is a sin? How does someone’s death thousands of years ago affect me?

That’s why we need to think carefully about how we’re communicating. We want non-Christians to understand what we’re saying. After all, we’re ambassadors for Christ (2 Cor. 5:20), and we’re called to tell others about God’s message of reconciliation. Therefore, we need to attend to the craft of communicating clearly. Notice Paul’s admonition in Colossians 4:3–6:

[Pray] that we may speak forth the mystery of Christ, for which I have also been imprisoned; that I may make it clear in the way I ought to speak. Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders, making the most of the opportunity. Let your speech always be with grace, as though seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person. [Emphasis mine.]

Notice the emphasis on being “clear,” using “wisdom,” and knowing how to “respond to each person.” An ambassador must master the craft of communication so the message is understood.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing inherently wrong with using theological language. There’s a place for shorthand terms, using a single word to capture a large concept. For example, “atonement” and “incarnation” communicate complex ideas in a concise way. I’m also not suggesting we water down or simplify to the point of miscommunicating an idea. Rather, the goal is to communicate important theological truths so people understand.

Therefore, when talking to non-believers, make an effort to find fresh and clear ways of communicating common Christian concepts. Instead of inviting people to put their “faith” in Christ, ask them to put their “trust” in him. Instead of “theology,” try “Christian convictions.” Instead of warning them, “You’re going to be judged for your sins,” say, “You’ll be punished for your crimes.” Almost any Christianese term can be replaced with a clearer equivalent.

Remember, as an ambassador for Christ, a key role is to tell people God’s message of reconciliation. Therefore, make sure people understand what you’re saying in words that are clear to them. Stop speaking Christianese. You want people to understand God’s message to them so they can respond.