Tactics and Tools

Speaking “Christianese” to the Unchurched

Author Alan Shlemon Published on 05/21/2019

I don’t always preach a sermon, but when I do, I try not to violate one of my sermon points within hours of preaching. That, however, is what I did recently.

Last week, I had the privilege of teaching at a men’s retreat outside of Stavanger, Norway. After the event was over, I was invited to preach at a local church. One of the points I made in my sermon was the importance of not speaking “Christianese.” This is the language that Christians speak among themselves and often speak when sharing their faith with non-Christians. It’s composed of church words that are filled with theological meaning but are meaningless to unchurched people. For example, “Jesus died for your sins” is Christianese. Christians understand the meaning, but it’s a foreign phrase to unchurched people. Who is Jesus? What is a sin? Why do I have sins? How does someone’s death affect my sin? This phrase is nonsensical to those outside the church. As the culture becomes increasingly secular, it’s more common to run into people who are unchurched and don’t understand Christianese.

That’s why I was amused when I made the same mistake just hours after preaching. I was invited to lunch by a local pastor and church leader. While at the restaurant, we made friendly conversation with a young (twenty-something) waitress, who, although working at a restaurant in Norway, was from Poland. At one point while talking to her, I offered the reason for my visit to Norway and explained that I was invited by a church to speak at a men’s retreat. I was curious to see if she had any religious interest or connections. Of course, I didn’t think I was speaking Christianese. After all, who hasn’t heard of a church men’s retreat? Apparently, she hadn’t. Her response: “So, is that where guys go to learn how to be men...like how to pick up women and stuff like that?” At first, I thought she was joking, but she wasn’t. She had no idea what a men’s retreat was, let alone that churches don’t typically teach men how to “pick up women.”

Not only did I not think I was speaking Christianese, but I underestimated how unchurched the culture was. Now, I realize this is not necessarily proof of anything, given this is a single data point. I suspect, however, that this is far from an isolated incident. Either way, it was an interesting and valuable lesson for me.

The alternative to speaking Christianese that I offered in my sermon that day was to communicate the gospel or a religious idea using ordinary words and not with religious lingo. No matter who we’re talking to, we want to meet people where they are and seek to help them understand. In my case, I told the waitress I was speaking at a men’s retreat for a church. Little did I know how unfamiliar she was with the concepts of a men’s retreat and a church. Not only was she unaware of what a men’s retreat was, but she thought it was possible that a church would teach men how to pick up women. After the “incident,” I was able to clarify what a men’s retreat was and that it was an apologetics-themed event. And, no, I did not use the term “apologetics.” By then, I had learned my (own) lesson.