How to have a spiritual conversation

How NOT to Speak Christianese

Cross-Cultural Flirtation Gone Wrong

I had only known her for a few hours when she shocked me for the first time. We were walking in the park, chatting, and mildly flirting when she told me that she liked my pants.

Her words froze me in my tracks. I liked her, but this was too much, way too soon.

"You like my pants?" I asked.

"Yes..." she said. "Is that okay?"

I wasn't sure what to say. I opened my mouth to reply and then the realization popped into my head: Because she is an American and I am British, she uses “pants” to mean something completely different to my understanding of the word.

"Oh..." I replied, "You mean you like my trousers? In Britain, 'pants' means 'underpants.'"

She blushed, laughed, and hurriedly explained, "Yes, yes, I like your trousers.”

"Thank goodness for that," I replied.

What You Say v. What They Imagine

Words are slippery things. My conversation with the woman in the park happened on two levels.

The first level was all about the syllables that left our mouths. We both made similar sounds, albeit with different accents, when we said the word “pants.” On this level, we seemed to be communicating flawlessly.

The problem lay in the second level: The images in our minds. When she said the word “pants,” her mind pictured a pair of jeans. Mine envisaged boxer shorts. Our divergent cultural backgrounds had conditioned us to hear “pants” in amusingly distinct ways.

Two people think of different items when they hear the word pants

Language works well if a group of people experience similar mental imagery when they hear words like “pants,” “horse,” “tree,” or “apple.” Our imagery never matches up exactly with someone else’s, but it usually correlates well enough for us to hold conversations and understand what the other person is trying to say.

Two people imagine different color apples when they hear the word apple

Our ability to understand what another person is saying breaks down, however, the further apart we are from one another culturally and the less we attach similar mental imagery to shared vocabulary.

Graph showing understanding decrease when cultural distance increases

This can happen when foreigners—like the woman and me—converse, and it can also happen with our own compatriots. My friend Matt, for example, purchased a mobile phone for his technophobic grandfather, who turned the device on, read the word “menu” on the screen and roared with incredulity "Menu?! Why on earth would I want a menu?" He had only ever encountered the concept of a “menu” in a restaurant and the word therefore seemed entirely out of place appearing on his telephone.

The Pesky Cultural Gap Called "Christianese"

One of the big cultural gaps that distorts the meaning of language is the divide between people grounded in the Christian faith and those who are discovering it for the first time.

Christians routinely use words like “sin,” “salvation,” “fellowship,” “sanctification,” and “the gospel” without realizing these phrases can leave their friends confused or even repelled.

We easily overlook this disconnection because, when we talk with our friends about most other things (relationships, television, sports, study), we are speaking from within a shared cultural context that makes understanding relatively straightforward.

But when we begin to use words related to the Christian faith, it is like we are from two different countries. Some people say that Christians use their own impenetrable language called “Christianese.”

If you don't believe me, try this experiment: Think about the word “conversion.” It is filled with meaning for you, from all the Bible studies, books, and talks you have absorbed. If you had never encountered the Christian faith, though, what imagery would “conversion” trigger in your mind? Take 20 seconds to see what comes to mind.

I usually hear it used to describe a building project that makes the attic habitable (a “loft conversion”), as a term for comparing the relative value of money from different countries (a “currency conversion”), or as a way of changing the format of a document on a computer (“file conversion in progress”).

Sometimes I hear it described in relation to religion. But, with a few possible exceptions, religious conversion in our culture is not viewed warmly or perceived as an inviting prospect for most people. In fact, it often has overtones of manipulation (“that person is trying to convert me”) or of desperation (as in “deathbed conversion”).

“Conversion,” then, is not the straightforward word for most people that it is for Christians.

Neither are many of our other Christianese words.

Becoming a Translator

None of this means we should ditch key Christian ideas like “conversion.” The linguistic divide between Christians and everybody else may be vast, but it is also easily overcome. We can bridge the gap by either explaining or translating.

How to Explain

We can easily bridge the understanding gap by providing explanations of concepts such as “sin” or “salvation.” This means that we can keep the previously misunderstood word, but infuse it with a new meaning for those with whom we are communicating.

Explanation actually happens all the time in Christian gatherings. Our talks and presentations are full of it. And our GIGs are aimed at collectively uncovering the true meaning of initially confusing concepts. We are usually quite good at explaining. That's why speakers love using illustrations.

While explanation is a very useful tool, it does have some drawbacks. If we try to explain every single unfamiliar word it can become time-consuming, as well as reinforce for our friends the sense of Christianity as something foreign and complex. Explanation may be a useful tool in a talk, but it needs to be used more sparingly in other contexts like conversations and when we are leading meetings.

How to Translate

In most contexts, translation is a great alternative to explanation. Translation occurs when we take an unfamiliar word and, instead of expending vast energy explaining it, we simply substitute it with a different word or phrase.

It's what we English speakers do when we go to France: We don't go around explaining the word “hello” to everyone. Instead, we smile and say “bonjour,” which is the French equivalent of “hello.” We translate. It's simpler.

So, if we were to translate “conversion”—a term explained in What Is Conversion?—we might say “turning toward God.” It's a phrase that is more likely to evoke the sort of mental imagery we Christians see when we hear the word “conversion.”

Here are a few ideas of how you could translate some common Christianese words:

  • "Repentance" --> "Turning back to God"
  • "Sin" --> "My rejection of God"
  • "Grace" --> "God's goodness and generosity, in spite of whether or not we deserve it"
  • "Born again" --> "God changing me from the inside out"
  • "Savior and Lord" --> "Forgiver and leader"
  • "Faith" --> "Trust"
  • "Non-Christians" --> "People who are discovering Jesus for the first time," "people who wouldn't describe themselves as Christians."

Some of these suggestions may resonate with you more than others. Don't feel you have to copy them. Instead, why not come up with your own language for communication about Jesus? The key is to be easily understandable yet also faithful to the biblical or theological reality you are attempting to convey.

Great Reasons to Bridge the Cultural Divide

The woman I flirted with in the park that day continued to be my friend. Eventually, we got engaged, married, and now have two kids. Who knows what would have happened if I had thought she was the kind of girl who wanted to discuss the boxer shorts of a guy she had just met? Thankfully, clearing up the confusing language paved the way to a lasting relationship. Maybe as we learn to do the same thing when speaking of Jesus to our friends, we can also open the door to an enduring friendship between them and their creator.

How to Play Christianese Taboo

A great way to become a better translator is to get together with a few other Christians and play Christianese Taboo. Here’s how it works:

  1. Download, print, and cut out the words and phrases from the free Christianese Taboo game. (Or provide lots of scraps of paper, and have everybody name as many Christianese words as they can, writing those words on the scraps of paper as they do so. One word or phrase on each scrap of paper.)
  2. Mix all the scraps of paper up and divide them equally among everyone.
  3. Take turns trying to explain your words to each other. You have to use no more than a single sentence to describe each one. The only rule is that you can't say what is written on your scrap of paper, nor can you use any word written on any of the other scraps of paper.
  4. See if you can guess what word each person is trying to communicate.
  5. When all the words have been used, mix them up, redistribute, and do it all again.

What's a Christianese word that you've found trips up your non-Christian friends? How have you tried to explain or translate it for them? Share in a comment below.

Comments

zaza pupi zaza

zaza pupi zaza

A lot of people think that

A lot of people think that religion in general and Christianity in particular is “just words.” And they pretty much figure that when we’re done talking, and they sweat us out, we’ll leave them alone and move on to another “target.”

The problem is the premise,

The problem is the premise, that if the Gospel is just somehow better understood in current laguage then it will be more easily accepted. Too bad Jesus didn't have the same notion, then maybe all but the twelve wouldn't have turned away after Jesus told them unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you have no part of me. But he did say that, and they told him that this was a hard teaching, maybe if he'd explained it better more would have stayed with him. But he didn't.
The problem isn't the Christianese, as much as it is that increasingly Christians are ashamed of the Gospel and refuse to share it, because it might offend someone. The gospel is foolishness to those who are perishing. Even when Jesus told Nichodemus that he must be born again, he had no clue what Jesus was talking about, instead of rephrasing his statement, Jesus was astonished at his lack of understanding. This same Nichodemus brought burial spices secretly to the tomb of Jesus.

Christians have an incredibly difficult time talking about hell, because it's so harsh and judgemental. But then we're leaving out the very truth of the gospel. Jesus warned us that they would hate us, because they hate him.

In this world you will have trouble, but take heart, I have overcome the world. John 16:33

Hi, Thanks for taking time to

Hi,

Thanks for taking time to comment and for engaging with this article. It's worth pointing out that the article's premise isn't actually that the gospel would suddenly become more palatable if it was expressed in everyday language. Sometimes, to be honest, it might very well become less attractive to some people.

You cite some interesting examples there. Let's take Nicodemus and think about him:

He was a Jewish scholar, who would be expected to know (what we now call) the Old Testament inside-out. Interestingly, the idea of receiving new life by water and Spirit was one which features prominently in the Old Testament books of Jeremiah and Ezekiel. By using a phrase like "born of water and the Spirit", Jesus WAS using language that should make instantaneous sense to Nicodemus. Jesus was doing exactly what this article prescribes. Jesus admonishes his lack of understanding precisely because, as "Israel's teacher" (John 3:10), he should "understand these things". Jesus was using language specifically adapted to his conversation partner. It's notable that Jesus never uses the phrase 'born again' when speaking with anybody else.

I can understand why you might think that Jesus and Paul used inaccessible religious words, but when they first spoke their words, what they said was far from cryptic religious jargon. It was fresh and new and in the language of the day.

I hope that helps!

This is all really great.

This is all really great. I'd like to think I could somehow put this article and all the suggestive comments, with their links, together into one piece. And then share it with everyone I know who deals with this dilemma.

Yes, there are times when translating to other choices is good, but try reading Gen 1-3 or John 1 with someone from a very different culture, asking for words they can't understand, and see how far you get. Sometimes definitions are necessary. But even better, sometimes are analogies:
Sin can be considered as living in a way that's disobedience to the one in authority - for us it's God, but the analogy could be to a parent or a boss.
Forgiveness & unconditional love, even grace & mercy could be compared to the ideal way of raising a child.
Being a disciple could be compared to wanting to be just like Jesus, yes. It could also be compared to someone desiring to be just like their world-renowned professor, under which they have come to study & learn from.
Etc...

As a Messianic Jewish

As a Messianic Jewish Believer, I agree with how important this sensitivity is when talking with Jewish people. Even the name "Jesus" can be a conversation stopper. Many Jews hear the name "Jesus" and it evokes thoughts about Hitler, the Spanish Inquisition, forced conversions, anti-Semitism, etc. Using His Hebrew name, "Yeshua," can keep the door open. (A lot of people don't even know that Jesus was a Torah-observant Jew Himself.) The word "convert" can have the same negative emotional reaction. Think "completion" or "fulfillment" of the Scriptures, rather than "conversion" which implies rejection of our heritage. Show people the Messiah prophesied in the Tanakh (Old Testament) who came for "the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (Matt 15:24).

Well said! thank you for

Well said! thank you for reminding us of that. Yeshua was amazing at making people feel welcome and communicating important things. Too bad Christians are sometimes rotten at welcoming people who they think are different.

I think most English speakers

I think most English speakers could understand the word non-Christian. "Non" is a pretty common prefix. Of course maybe "Christian" is the part that needs defining...

Good point. But how do you

Good point. But how do you think it sounds to the ears of someone new?

Imagine you go to an Atheist Society gathering and someone either introduces you as:

a) "This is my non-atheist friend."

or

b) "This is my friend. They're not actually an atheist."

Which one would make you feel most at ease?

'Reformed' in the name of our

'Reformed' in the name of our church meant something to us from that church tradition but completely confused our community. People are reformed smokers, reformed drinkers, reformed drug users. Reformed abusers. Reformed criminals. Those were the sort of connotations people associated with our church name. The church name was amended to Christian Reformed but that helped few - many still ask 'reformed from what?' It's always been a good example to me of language that gets in the way.

Translation is great, but

Translation is great, but sometimes defining is in order. If you're actually in a conversation where half of this stuff could come up (sanctification, repentance, etc), you really may as well define and use sin. If you're just telling your friend that the event has "worship" and "fellowship" then you obviously wouldn't have to. I expect most people to have a different image of sin based somewhat on their own bar of morality- and I think replacement words would either be lacking or unwieldy.

Also, take care that the game of taboo is, by nature, awkward. If you sound like you're often searching for your words too carefully or talking too round-about, it sounds forced and maybe even disingenuous.

So, really, a lot of these more technical terms are probably fine. If they come up, they probably deserve a definition. You just have to remember to define them. Which words are worth defining and which are better off translating- or frankly, omitting all together- probably depends on your audience.

The ones to really watch out for are those pesky ones you'd use to anyone in passing without a second thought- the ones that are so hardwired that you don't even think of them as being distinctly Christian. Check a dictionary- if none of the definitions (or a really low low priority one) match your image of it, it's jargon.

Testimony should be replaced

Testimony should be replaced with "story".

I like that!

I like that!

Wow! What an excellent

Wow! What an excellent article that identifies one of the most important challenges to the church today. With the sheer amount of communication that happens on a daily basis, whether it's in conversation or it's online, it's more essential than ever before that what we're saying can be clearly understood. It's not enough to be telling the truth---we have to tell the truth in a way so that people can understand what we're talking about.

For folks who want/need help in knowing the different Christianese words and phrases, there is an excellent list of over 100 of the most common Christianese expressions available here: http://www.dictionaryofchristianese.com/list-of-words-by-alphabetical/

This list of Christian slang at Wikipedia is also another helpful resource: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glossary_of_Christianity

It's hard to remove the Christianese from your vocabulary if you don't know what it is. Sometimes it can help us to speak more plainly if we can see a big list of Christianese. Long story short: if a word or phrase is on either of those two lists, then there's a good chance that you'll have to explain the term if you're talking with a non-Christian.

A friend at uni wrote in an

A friend at uni wrote in an university assignment that she admired someone's "servant heart". I twas returned with a red-pen question mark over the phrase...

A great article, it provides

A great article, it provides insight to a major missing link in the present generational gap
and a solution to cross generational advancement of the kingdom of God. A good understanding
of culture is a veritable facilitator of persuasive communication. We need to amplify this message
and if I have your permission I'll post it on my page and perhaps our blog too.
Thanks for the message

Feel free to post this on

Feel free to post this on your page and blog. Thanks for spreading the word. Glad you enjoyed it.

thank's

thank's

Great post! I like the Taboo

Great post! I like the Taboo game idea. Here are a couple new ones. :)
- Missional
- Incarnational
- Gospel centered
- Sojourn (I have never heard anyone use that word that was not a Christian.)

Or almost anything from this video... "Shoot Christians Say" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FjN_IDhCDZE

"Rejection" implies intent

"Rejection" implies intent for most people--knowing that you're saying no. Sometimes we do things that we know we shouldn't--but with no intention of rejecting God (or others for that matter). In Confirmation, I learned that "sin is all in thought, word, and deed that is contrary to the will of God." Sure, it's a form of rejecting Him whether intentional or not, but I think your wording could be different.
When we "reject" an invitation to something, how we deliver the rejection plays a role: we can ignore the invitation completely and not respond for whatever reason, we can be polite and say we'd rather not, or we can be rude about it. Different messages that depend on attitude and delivery.

Love this article!

Love this article!

"Sin" --> "My rejection of

"Sin" --> "My rejection of God"

So Muslims never sin, because they don't reject God. At least I assume that when they pray 5 times a day to God, they accept the existence of God.

But they don't believe in the

But they don't believe in the same God that Christians do (they reject that Jesus Christ is God).

The point remains.

The point remains. Translating didn't work. And as you pointed out, their God is different from Christians', so there's even more translating to be done.

Benjamin,Thank you so much

Benjamin,

Thank you so much for weighing in. We're so appreciative of the list of words you shared...we just might have to make a printable version of Christianese Taboo out of those suggestions!

Thanks again,

The InterVarsity Evangelism Team

- Regeneration - Purity -

- Regeneration
- Purity
- "The Battle"
- Sanctuary
- Sanctification
- Justification
- Sinner
- Sin
- Holy/Holiness
- "The Flesh"
- Holy Spirit
- Redeemer
- Worship (usually just a super vague way of describing singing in church)
- Devotions
- "Popcorn prayer"
- Communion
- God's WORD
- "The Word" (especially when use to describe Jesus)
- TESTIMONY (this one's huge and often overlooked)
- Offering
- "Heavenly Father"
- ALLL of the cool "non-christian friendly" hip slogans that churches use to describe their regular groups (like calling Sunday School "The Matrix" or "The MobofJesus" or something crazy like that...)
- Refusing to call "quiet time" (with God) what it is... instead needing to say "communing with the Father" or "getting into God's word"

I couldn't agree more with

I couldn't agree more with the cultural sensitivities of the word 'conversion'!

I think 'evangelism' might have some similar associations, such as that guy yelling at you on the quad or the people who end up on tv for doing something hurtful. It took me a while to get used to it, actually! Much of the time I tend to use "telling people who Jesus is" instead. Thanks for the post!

Good job

Good job

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

More information about formatting options

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.