Does Your Church Speak “Christianese”?

Orginally published on Sunday, February 04, 2007 at 11:00 PM
by Todd Rhoades

In the mail on Friday, I got a copy of Brad Powell's new book "Change Your Church for Good... The Art of Sacred Cow Tipping". The book releases tomorrow from Thomas Nelson. Brad has written a brilliant book on how to change your church without compromising God's Word. Today I want to share just a few paragraphs from the book about 'relevance'. There's much said about the church being relevant today; but I think Brad says it in a way that we all can understand. Brad writes...

“In order to work right, the church must be relevant. It must communicate God’s truth and hope in the language of the culture in which it’s situated. Unfortunately, many consider cultural relevance a compromise for the church. Though they may be sincerely motivated, they’re wrong. As an incontrovertible example, let me share some words from Jesus Himself on this.

Videns autem turbas ascendit in montem et cum sedisset accesserunt ad eum discipuli eius et aperiens os suum doce bat eos dicens beati pauperes spiritu quoniam ipsorum est regnum caelorum beati mites quoniam ipsi possidebunt terram beati qui lugent quoniam ipsi consolabuntur beati qui esuriunt et sitiunt iustitiam quoniam ipsi saturabuntur beati misericordes quia ipsi misericordiam consequently beati mwido cordequoniam ipsi Deum videbunt beati pacific! quoniam filii Dei vocabuntur beati qui persecutionem patiuntur propter iustitiam quoniam ipsorum est regnum caelorum beati estis cum maledixerint vobis etpersecuti vos faerint et dixerint omne malum adversum vos mentientes propter me gaudete et exultate quoniam merces vesti-a copiosa est in caelis sic enim persecuti sunt prophetas quifuerunt ante vos

Wasn’t that awesome? It defines the foundational message of Christ and explains His life and ministry, doesn’t it? I wouldn’t be surprised if you stopped to read it a couple of times and contemplate its importance to your life. You just read a portion of the greatest sermon ever given by the greatest preacher in history ... the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1-12). The truths you just read are a part of the foundational hope that Jesus Christ came to give us.

Let me ask you: how much hope did you experience as a result of reading them? How relevant was it to your life? If you’re honest, unless you’re proficient in Latin, it was totally irrelevant. And the reason it was irrelevant is because you couldn’t understand it. It didn’t make any sense. Your inability to understand it rendered it inoperative in your life. Though it contains powerful truths, reading it was boring and a waste of time. More than likely, you either didn’t try or you quickly gave up.

We need to realize that this is the experience of lost and unchurched people when they choose to attend a church that communicates God’s truth in, what I call, “Christianese.”

Whether they know it or not, this is the language most churches all over the world are speaking. “Christianese” is the private language of any given church’s culture and tradition. As with all languages, it is clearly understood and considered beautiful by those who have been raised with it. The only problem is that only insiders can understand and appreciate it.

When outsiders, either unchurched or different-churched people, attend a church that speaks Christianese, they don’t get it.  They have no clue what’s being said. It’s like a foreign language to them.”

FOR DISCUSSION: Let’s start a list of the top “Christianese” words we’re all guilty of using.  What words have you used in your service lately that kind of made you cringe?  What private language is part of your church’s culture and tradition?  How can you communicate better to the unsaved?

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  There are 75 Comments:

  • Posted by Leonard

    Intimacy - Means sex almost everywhere but the church

  • Posted by

    Community - means a location, not a philohophy, to most people outside the church

    however, I think we are way overconcerned with the whole “language issue"… the example given in the article of using Latin is not the same thing as using a few terms that may have a different meaning to a new person. Read Rainer’s book called, “Surprising Insights of the Unchurched”. Rainer’s calls the concern about terms as one of the “myths” of reaching the unchurched. Several of those previously unchurched thought it was comical when the pastor tried to avoid using certain terms, or dumbed things down in any way. The surveys showed that the previously unchurched EXPECTED to not understand everything, and EXPECTED to learn something new!

    I think the analogy of using Latin would only apply if you were going to a cross cultural setting where they literally used a different language than English.

    I think people don’t care about what terms you use - they want to know - DOES IT MAKE A DIFFERENCE. “My life is changed” - that is easy to understand.

  • Posted by

    I come from a more legalistic group.  Our pet word is “Saved”.  The unchurched world connects the word to their savings account or money not spent during a purchase.
    Brian thanks for the reference to Ranier’s Book.  It isa great read.

  • Posted by Jeremy McAnally

    Didn’t a Christian research group do a poll that said those who are unchurched actually found “Christianese” to be an expected part of going to church, and that churches that didn’t use that sort of language were either boring or made them feel uncomfortable?  I think maybe tapdancing around words that might make people uncomfortable in our minds isn’t a good idea; a lot of times that’s the sort of stuff that gets people asking questions, gets them curious.

  • Posted by

    I take issue with the thoughts of this site and some of the blogs.  If we are living in the days just preceding the return of the Lord Jesus (and we are), and if evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse (and they are), then the words of Jesus do not need to be changed to accomodate the “unchurched” (an emergent term for the lost and unsaved).  The truth of God’s Word needs to be preached more than ever before in its power and purity.  Jesus told the people, “Ye must be born again.” He also told them, “Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.” It is unfortunate that some complain that one of the “pet words” of their shurch is “saved”, but that is exactly what the Bible (KJV) says.  Throwing aside the old landmarks has caused chaos in our churches.  Stick with the Book...it never fails.

  • Posted by Leonard

    We had a woman receive Christ yesterday.  I am doing a new series on “How God Changes a Life” from Romans 8.  She was a first time guest, came with her teen who has been coming for the past month.  I spoke about condemnation, justification and sanctification.  Took time to paint pictures with these words because I am sure 95% or more of the people I spoke to Sunday did not use those words in the same way the Bible does any time in the last 30 days. 

    I never “change” words to “accommodate” the unsaved.  I “choose” words to “communicate” with people who do not have the heritage or training in faith I have.  There are a lot of young believers in my church who just don’t know religious speak.  I do this because the most relevant message spoken in a different language is powerless. 

    I suggest any of us take the list of word we compile, put them on an index card and then eavesdrop 3 or 4 conversations at the mall or a restaurant and see how many of these words appear in the context we use them.  On the flip side of your card write down words you hear that might have the same meaning.  I have done this in search for the “language of my culture.”

    One reason we speak Christianese is many communicators/pastors work on the text but never work on their own skill past college or seminary.  Most pastors I know have no friends who do not have a friendship with God.  I read at least 2 books a year on communication and attend a seminar every other year, I just think this is what it means to fan to flame the gift.  My 2 cents

  • Posted by Daniel

    Obviously the Lord’s words need to be changed, since he spoke Aramaic.  He didn’t speak the king’s English (and no one else should these days either, in my opinion).  He spoke in parables.  We can quote snippets about the judgment on Israel (which was fulfilled in 70ad) if we want, but it won’t change our mandate: to go make disciples of all nations.  That mandate requires that we speak to the culture (without changing the message obviously--’relevance’ assumes there’s a given message that needs to be ‘translated’, hence the importance of maintaining the message).
    At the same time, life in the Kingdom is a paradigm shift (hence, the last will be first, and the first last), and so of course outsiders will have some words to learn.  That’s a normal and good thing.
    My two cents.

  • Posted by

    I agree with those who’ve said that the example in Latin doesn’t work.  The unchurched aren’t going to hear words that have absolutely no meaning, but may very well hear words that have to them a “different” meaning.  Ex: Leonard’s example of the word “intimacy” and Brian’s “community.” If I go to China as a missionary, I’m not going to speak in English and expect the natives to get it.  But in our churches, some words and phrases mean something different to us than to those in our culture but outside the church. This can actually be more problematic than a foreign language if we are blind to it.

    I too loved Rainer’s book, but I think his point is that we shouldn’t fall all over ourselves to stop using words that the unchurched might not understand or would understand differently.  Rather, we should simply explain what words and terms that might otherwise be misunderstood, and could completely change the meaning of our message for the person who misunderstands.  If in the sermon the term intimacy with God is used, add a few sentences to explain what this means spiritually.  If we’re gonna sing “the blood, the blood, the wonderful blood” explain it before so an unchurched person doesn’t think we’re vampires . . . but rather has another opportunity to consider the depth of our need and the sacrifice made on our behalf.

    My pet peeve is the term “accepted Jesus Christ as your PERSONAL savior” (emphasizing the part of this phase I most distain).  While one is completely unchurched, they have no idea what on earth that means.  Once they become saved, we’ve convinced them that their salvation (and their church involvement) is all about them; like a personal computer, personal digital assistant, or a personal home loan (ala McLaren).


  • Posted by Todd Rhoades


    No one has suggested that we stray away from the book.  Actually, we are advocating that we stick close to the book. 

    I suggest you pick up a copy of Brad Powell’s new book.  You may not completely agree with all Brad has to say; but he eloquently paints the picture of how churches can do both:  stay in line with God’s Word without compromising its message; and speaking the language of the culture that we live in (as Brad points out, just as Jesus did)!

    The book comes out tomorrow; and you can get a copy at Amazon or Brad’s site.


  • Posted by

    Dan Brewster:

    What I believe my cousin Homer is referring to is the use of the word “saved” in such a way that there is no sign of grace attached to it. It is thrown around without explanation as to what it means as defined in the Bible. Or even more simply put, it comes across as arrogant and snobbish instead of a sincere sense of humbleness. If I am wrong in what he meant, he knows he is more than free to correct me.

    “The truth of God’s Word needs to be preached more than ever before in its power and purity.” - I could not agree with this statement more.

    Thank you for responding even if you do not agree with all that is discussed here.

    Grace to you,

  • Posted by

    Who is YE? As for sticking to the purity--For a long time the word in repent in many christians circles has come to mean “showing signs of outward sorrow for a specific action”. (Cry over that act and mercy is given) The problem is that the greek word means “ to change ones mind (heart) concerning the course of life you are going and to change directions, to reject a whole life system in ordr to embrace a new life system” Some words must be retained and explained “propitiation” others need to be updated without being explained (Ye, Thou, quicken, divers temptation [mental images of Jaques Cousto]) to avoid wasting intellegtual energy while attempting to get to the main point.  Communication is our Job, Conversion is the Spirit, let’s not forget our role.
    BTW- I can’t wait to get the book.  I was redeemed (born again, Saved, filled with the Holy Ghost) from a biker, drug using, free sex, gang.  I desire all to know the freedom in Christ, I have been very disturedbed and at times disillusioned at the lack of love from “churches” toward people, because of the idolized love to their tradition and lingo.  Put another way, I saw more true communial love (admittidly warped) from a smelly hell’s angel than I have seen in some churches, just because someone did not pray in old anglican venacular.  I, for one am glad that Jesu chose to have the NT first penned in slave, market place greek rather than classical, high society greek.  I think it relly reveals His true intition concerning communicating to the masses. Then from that communcation He himself will call out those who are to join Him in life (being saved)

  • Posted by Todd Rhoades

    Regardless of whether or not Latin is a good example (I think it is an extreme example that makes a great point)… those of us who grew up in the church or may have tons of training in ‘church leadership’ kid ourselves if we think that the language we grew up with for the last 30 years in side the church; and the ‘christianese’ words and internal language of most churches will connect with those in our culture who don’t know Christ.

    Again, I encourage the read of Brad’s book.  That will allow you to read his whole thesis and see his heart on this matter.

  • Posted by

    To Leonard and Wendi…
    I think you have given great thought to your responses.  I liked Leonard’s response in regards to using the Biblical terms of justification, etc, and describing them in ways that an unsaved person can understand.  That is not changing what Jesus said, it is explaining what He said.  And Wendi mentioned her pet peeve.  “accepting Jesus as PERSONAL Savior”.  Well, He is going to be a personal Savior, or He will not be Savior.  A person must understand that he/she is under condemnation, and that Christ died for THEM.  And it’s not a matter of accepting Him, it is a matter of receiving Him. (John 1:12)

  • Posted by

    “saved”, but that is exactly what the Bible (KJV) says”

    Actually the Bible (in Greek) uses the word ‘sozo’. It is tranlated 13 different ways. So, if you want to stay true to the Scriptures and speak the correct language, you should probably call people ‘sozo’ instead of saved, and then define the meaning, since it is used so many ways. Otherwise, you are using some interpreters “pet word"…

  • Posted by

    Yes, we need to be relevant, but that is through current application of God’s Word, not by substituting words that MIGHT NOT have the same impact or meaning that they were originally intended to have.  If we want to be relevant to the unchurched, and have them coming out of our services seeking to know God’s Word more, we can simply take a few seconds during our sermons to explain what the word means, instead of skirting around it.  For example, ‘anointing’ and ‘sanctification’ are found in God’s Word, so they should be used.  By explaning what they mean in ‘today’s language,’ the unchurched will begin to make the needed connection between their lives and God’s Word.  The last situation I want for our church is to have people reading words and phrases in their Bibles that teach important principles, and never hear those words coming out of our mouths.  By explaning ‘Christianese’ sounding words to our church, we are teaching them to ‘fish’ for the Word of God, and we will stop simply putting the ‘fish’ in their mouths.

  • Posted by Todd Rhoades

    Again, let’s not jump to conclusions here.

    No one has suggested that we skirt words or issues.  That, simply is wrong.

    What is being advocated is to stop using words and terms that the people we communicate with don’t understand.

    And what is being advocated is communicating God’s truth, God’s WHOLE truth, using words our culture will understand.  Yes, that includes things like sin and hell.

    Let’s get the idea out of our head that using culturally relevent (and I’m getting to hate that term cause is it so misunderstood and misused) language does NOT equate to ‘watering down the gospel’.  At least not with most of us.


  • Posted by Todd Rhoades

    Good points, Kurt…


  • Posted by

    Dan Brewster – I know that I happen to get saved “personally” through the redemptive work of Jesus.  But all of creation is groaning for its redemption, and all of creation is in need of redemption, and the cross must not be reduced to a personal transaction between me and God.  Sometimes, in an effort to tug at a person’s emotions, I hear well meaning Christians say “if you were the only person on earth, Jesus would have died for you alone.” Arrrrgh!!!!  HE DIDN’T DO THAT!!!  And I’m not the only person on earth, and I’ve been redeemed to become part of a redeemed people, called to become a redemptive influence in the world still desperately in need of redemption, as long as God sees fit to keep me walking around on planet earth.  It’s not about my personal salvation . . . and it never was!  That “personal” stuff is Christianeese which has damaged “our” thinking more than the thinking of the unchurched.

    Someone kick the soapbox out from under me.


  • Posted by

    [I never “change” words to “accommodate” the unsaved.  I “choose” words to “communicate” with people who do not have the heritage or training in faith I have.]

    GREAT! Thanks, Leonard. Here’s my list of Christianese words to stop using.

    just (as an adjective… Oh Lord, we just… I use it all the time, I gotta stop!)
    personal savior (too many negatives on that one)
    blessed (As in, “wow,did that service just really bless you?")

    There’s plenty more, right? Those of us trying to make our services make sense to people who are seeking (or “being sought” as it were) MUST think about the words we say as a “pre-believer” might hear them! There are songs and words we need to dump in those instances. Like, uh… Jesus did.

    I hope this post just really blesses you all…


  • Posted by Jeremy McAnally

    Yes, Wendi.  He saved all of us and all of creation, but you, personally, have to accept Him.  That’s where the personal comes from in most circles (regardless of how it’s perceived).  It’s the job of the minister to clarify semantics; I feel there’s no need to change the way most of our churches speak today (unless it is to return to more biblical terms rather than junk made up in “seeker-sensitive” circles). 

    What is relevance?  Speaking in a way that people understand?  Speaking their language?  Is that what we want?  Is your message reaching them because they understand or because it was said into their context?  These are things that we must tip-toe around.  What are these “words they don’t understand”?  If you’re a good preacher and if you’re speaking in a clear manner, it seems to me that there should be no confusion.  Sure, the word sanctification might seem a little scary, but what do you change it to that still captures the real meaning?  “Being saved and stuff”?

  • Posted by michael

    I guess I struggle to understand how some would struggle to understand the point Brad Powell is making and Todd brought to our attention.  It was brilliant if only for it’s simplicity.  The gospel is so important that it needs to be clerly communicated in a way people can hear. 

    As churched people, we can’t assume that others understand our “Christianese” just because we do.  We need to be more intentional about communicating the gospel to others and explaining key concepts of the Christian faith in terms people understand.  Communicating the gospel with words that are closer to what everyday, non-Christian people would understand seems to be the shortest distance between two points.  I certainly don’t want to have to teach someone greek in order for them to understand the gospel.  I also don’t need to parse Old English to help them understand.  A good, contemporary, English language translation is a great start.  Then we do the work of teaching, closing the distance between the original message and the percieved message so that truth is communicated.

    This whole “You are watering down the gospel if you teach or preach using modern language” thing is getting a bit old.  I am glad that Jesus didn’t come to earth with a non-essential axe to grind like some of his followers seem to.  He was able to stay focused on His mission, to seek and to save that which is lost.  Can we get back to that? 

    Todd asked us to reflect on what words to we regularly use in our churches that might not be clear to unchurched people?

    I think the word “Christian” can be problematic.  I use the term follower of Jesus, because “Christian” has such a wide range of meaning in our culture.

    Peace in Christ,


  • Posted by Leonard

    The Superfluity of Naughtiness is my next message.  It is in the KJV so I will be biblical and that is all that matters.  Afterwards we will raise our Ebenezer’s. 

    Wendi, I suggest switching the order of the words.  I say have you personally invited Christ to forgive your sins and lead your life? 

    I think the word sanctified should be used, but explained with an illustration.  I want someone reading their bible to come across some of these words and understand them, especially with a current meaning.

  • Posted by Jeremy McAnally

    Precisely, Leonard.  I think that’s where my mind is going...we need not to avoid these words, but confront them head on with an explanation, a story, an illustration, a connection.  I think that may have been the point of the author of the book, but I know many people who take this idea and throw the baby out with the bath water (cf., pretty much anyone on The Ooze message boards).  These “Christianese” words are unavoidable in many places, especially if people plan on, you know, reading their Bible any time soon. wink

  • Posted by

    Jeremy, et al…

    Here’s the point you need to consider. That word “personal” means “selfish” to so many, or “personal relationship with Christ” to many implies that a person is all “me and Jesus and no one else bother us"… Both are incorrect scripturally. So if you needed to find new words for the idea that a person needs to trust in Christ for salvation, would you be willing to do it.

    Here’s an example of what I’m talking about, language-wise. If I tripped and fell backward and landed on my posterior end, in America, I could innocently say that I landed on my ______fill in the blank. One word we use very innocently in America rhymes with nanny but begins with a different letter. It’s innocent in America, it is a VERY naughty word in New Zealand. As soon as I found this out, it would be wrong for me not to change my word-choice when in that culture.

    We need to choose our words for our culture, like Paul did, like Jesus did.

    And, Jeremy, you wrote “unless it is to return to more biblical terms rather than junk made up in “seeker-sensitive” circles”. I take some exception to that statement. The words we often avoid using are not actually in the Bible, but rather are in the context of our American Western Christian Culture… Please keep it positive, that statement goes a little over the line, imho.

  • Posted by

    “It is NOT the hearer’s responsibility to understand; it is the speaker’s responsibility to be understood.”

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