Christian Language and Gospel Ignorance

A growing number of people in North America and Europe have no background or understanding of Christianity. One reason could be the great influx of immigrants from many nations. But an increasing segment of Western society has grown unengaged and uninterested in Christianity, the result of a shift in culture.

America’s culture is becoming both post-modern and post-Christian. Many sources discuss this at length, but I won’t here.[i] Europe and Canada have preceded the US in this cultural shift, but America is not far behind.

The church cannot stop this cultural shift, nor can they ignore it. Some will argue this point, but denying or resisting this shift will only bring insulation and isolation from people the church wants to reach. Christian believers need to understand this and make the necessary adjustments for addressing this major change in culture.

More and more new believers, responding to the gospel and God’s invitation into His Kingdom, come into churches with a limited understanding of Christianity—its beliefs, practices, terminology, and expected lifestyle.

How can Christian believers communicate to people so they hear the truth and respond to Jesus? Billions of people in the world—yes, billions![ii]have never heard the gospel or even the name of Jesus once in their lives, or in their own language. A rapidly growing Muslim population throughout the world appears closed to the gospel, even though the Koran speaks of Isa al Masih (Jesus the Messiah) as a prophet.[iii]Again I ask, how can believers convey the gospel so they can hear it?

Many people lack a frame of reference for understanding the words, terms, and biblical references used by Christian believers. Collectively, they become a foreign language to nonbelievers and new believers. It’s called Christianese—a specialized dialect of English.[iv]

Special words and terms are common in most fields of study and called field-dependent terms—words and phrases with specific meanings. Various branches of the sciences, academics and education, politics, and even subcultures like street gangs, have their own lingo—a language specific to their field of reference. Christianity, with its field of study called theology, is no different.

Christians often use specific words and terms with meanings understood within the church—at least it appears that way. My experience as a pastor and cross-cultural missionary tells me differently. Many Christian believers cannot explain these specialized words and terms in plain English so a nonbeliever could understand. This helps make the gospel a mystery to people.

When Christian clichés, and what I call Bible talk,[v]are used outside their field of reference (the church) people unfamiliar with these words and terms will not understand them. Having traveled many places in Asia, Latin America, and Africa, I know the feeling of hearing a foreign language and not understanding what’s being said. It’s similar to being in a movie with subtitles, but you can’t see and read the subtitles because you’re one of the characters in the movie!

In some conversations and settings, I am expected to respond, and though wanting to, I can’t. This is the predicament Christians often put nonbelievers in, and even new believers uninitiated to Christianese. To be fair, most believers don’t realize they do this.

Two issues are at work here. One is the lack of understanding on the part of the nonbeliever or new believer, who doesn’t understand what is being said. The second issue is with the believer who uses Christianese, and doesn’t understand the terms they themselves use. This is revealed when a person attempts to explain what they say in non-Christian words and can’t.

Experience—the Great Teacher

Over the years I stumbled upon a simple test of someone’s understanding of Christian terms and theology. Can a person put Christian and Biblical words in his or her own words? It’s a simple way of communicating Christianese to unbelievers and new believers alike. I use the acronym IYOW—In Your Own Words—to describe the process. It seems simple, but is not as easy as it sounds.

I didn’t discover this through extensive research, but in much humbler ways. As a pastor, I’m responsible to feed the sheep, that is, teach the Bible—its doctrine and practice—to help God’s people grow spiritually.

I founded a church in Southern California’s high desert in 1978, with my wife and three children, ages newborn to five years. Our fourth child came a few years after the church started. My older children would hear things in Sunday school and church services and have questions, and ask dad these questions at inopportune times.

It seemed much easier to teach adults than children, so I thought. With adults I could use all the Christian theological terms without explaining them. But when my children asked me to explain these same things, I found myself fumbling to explain things in simple, clear words. Apparently, I hadn’t learned my lesson with the Sunday school class well enough.

More than a few times my oldest daughter, Becky, would ask simple, heartfelt questions on our way to a church service. “Dad, how can God be one and still be the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?” As a pastor, my mind was filled with things to do before the service began, as well as my message. I was not prepared to explain the doctrine of the Trinity to my sweet, elementary-aged daughter in a simple, clear manner. The reality is, it challenged me, and brought a change in my whole approach to teaching.

My experience in the Philippines, as a teacher of pastors, leaders, and Bible School students, confirmed the importance of this while teaching in an environment where English was a second language, but Christianity was familiar.

The Philippines is often proclaimed as the only Christian nation in Asia, so students used Christian terms frequently. But I realized many of the students didn’t have a full understanding of these words and phrases.

I got a partial clue early on, getting settled into Philippine culture. We were part of a little barrio church with many small children, and where some of the worship songs were sung in English. One Sunday morning, during greeting time, I started speaking to one of the children whom I’d seen singing. My wife said, “They don’t understand what you’re saying.” I replied, “But they’re singing the songs in English, aren’t they?”

Because I was a bit slow on the uptake, my wife explained they sang in English because that’s how they learned the songs. The children didn’t know what the words meant. Similarly, I could speak a little of the dialect, but didn’t understand the language beyond a few familiar words and phrases.

When people use certain words and terms, and quote Scripture texts, this does not mean they have a clear grasp of what they are saying. It may seem clear to the speaker, but can the person explain these same things in simple words? If not, what’s spoken sounds like a secret code language to the uninitiated unless someone explains it to them.

This is another excerpt from my upcoming book. I'm in the final stages of rewriting it, but the last couple weeks have been sneak peeks. I appreciate any feedback—constructive, please ;-)...


[i]There are many books and articles written on post-modern, post-Christian trends, here are some ones I’ve read and recommend— The End of the World as We Know It, C Smith Jr. (2001 WaterBrook Press); Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church, by DA Carson (2005 Zondervan). Online articles— http://goo.gl/emWyu | http://goo.gl/yVFBo
[ii]With the world population hitting seven (7) billion at the end of 2011, statistics fluctuate for numbering the billions of unreached and least reached peoples in the world. However, there are organizations dedicated to researching this (see the following links). Joshua Project— http://www.joshuaproject.net/index.php| Operation World— http://www.operationworld.org/| US Center for World Mission— http://www.uscwm.org/
[iii]Isa al Masih is the anglicized term for the Arab name/title of Jesus the Messiah or Jesus (the) Christ. The Koran (the anglicized spelling for Quran or Qur’an) is Islam’s book of sacred writings. Muslims are followers of Islam and the prophet, Mohammed.
[iv]Here are some websites devoted to Christianese— http://dictionaryofchristianese.com/ | http://goo.gl/nssqu| http://goo.gl/aKFDV| http://www.internetevangelismday.com/jargon.php| http://goo.gl/2Y1Bp(also see “Common Christianese Terms” in the Glossary)

[v]Christianese can come in many forms—common clichés, Bible references or words from familiar Bible texts, and theological terms (more academic). I call these Bible talk because they are based on words and phrases in the Bible or in reference to texts in the Bible.