Although you might not have heard the term ‘Christianese’ before, you can probably guess what it refers to. The word is defined on Urban Dictionary as “A communicable language within the Christian subculture with words and phrases created, redefined, and/or patened [sic] that applies only to the Christian sphere of influence.” Arguably, Christianese can be divided into two types. You’ve got your more traditional terminology such as ‘propitiation’, ‘supplication’ and ‘dais’, which has caused innumerable Anglican children to scratch their heads for years. But more recently, there’s been a growth of unconventional language mainly used in trendy North American church circles: ‘doing life’ (nothing to do with prison sentences), being ‘on fire’ for Christ, having ‘quiet time’ each morning.
Almost every time I’ve seen this phenomenon being discussed, it’s been with a negative view towards it. It’s certainly easy to understand why. If I were in conversation with a non-Christian, and I started talking to them about being “washed in the blood of the Lamb” or having a “cross to bear”, they probably wouldn’t understand it at all. Even if they did, they would just view it as weird – or worse, pretentious. Our efforts to reach out to the non-believing world fall flat when we start trying to communicate with them in ways that alienate.
But at the same time, I can see why some Christians insist on using this sort of language.
The fact that our God has a much higher level of authority than us means we shouldn’t really be talking about Him in ways that trivialise Him or bring Him down to our level. So it almost makes sense to use it in at least some church situations. I’ve seen some people from Low Church backgrounds shooting down the rituals and customs associated with High Church services, often arguing that this is the kind of thing Jesus was addressing when He spoke out against the Pharisees. What they maybe don’t realise is that those rituals aren’t just a load of hot air; they serve to represent the sacred dimension of our faith and that as believers, we walk a different path in life. It’s the same principle here.
This isn’t to say that I’m entirely in favour of using Christianese. Maybe it’s partly because the churches I was raised in didn’t ever use a lot of it, and most of my friends growing up were totally unfamiliar with church of any kind, so I’ve never needed to use it much myself. But I recognise the purpose it tries to serve, so I’m not calling for its abolition either. I suppose we just need to be mindful of the contexts we use it in.
In my A-Level studies of the English language, I was introduced to the practice known as ‘code switching’. This describes the way people will alter the language they use based on who they’re talking to, for example using more formal language when talking to one’s superiors compared to that used when talking to friends. Might we need to improve at that as a Church? Loving and revering our traditions and the meanings behind them, yet not being so tied to them that we can’t relate to the world outside? I suspect the answer to that question is a ‘yes’. Or rather, an ‘amen’…