A Lesson in ‘Churchese’

“Churchese”  — ever heard of it? It’s that special language often used among the redeemed and sometimes accompanied by a wink and a nudge.

I first heard about Churchese when I started seminary, a whopping 10 years ago this fall. It basically involves using a lot of words that have primary reference to the Bible or inside the Church. Words like “righteous” “lost” “saved” “redeemed” “hell” and the like. Words that mean a lot inside a church, but to the world they are gobbledygook. I remember being encouraged in my evangelism 101 class to ditch Churchese when doing personal evangelism. Don’t tell someone they’re a sinner, lost, heathen, and going to hell. All of those terms, while true, turn people away from conversation. Use modern terminology that the listener can understand without thinking too hard. Speak with tact.

One example might be “sinner.” One thing I’ve found is that people know they’re messed up. They may not wear it like a badge but, at the heart level, they know. They don’t need conviction from you. That’s the Holy Spirit’s job. They also don’t need to be labeled. What they DO need is to know there is an alternative to their messed-up-ness  — a perfect solution. And that solution involves faith in Jesus and nothing else. No Churchese is needed to tell them this.

But we like our Christian language, don’t we? To be perfectly honest, the longer I work in a church the more I find myself using Churchese. The people around me understand that language.

What brings this topic to the fore? Tonight I went out to grab dinner and a Christian evangelist drove by. How did I know they were a Christian, much less and evangelist? The window chalk. Written all over were terms like “Jesus Saves” and “We love Jesus” and “1 John 4:9.” Someone went wild with the verbiage and I’m really not sure what their purpose was. I can’t help but wonder if they hope an unsaved person will go, “Hmmm… 1 John 1:9? Let me grab my bible and see what it says…” as if they have a Bible handy, know what 1 John 4:9 is and can find it.

Sometimes we assume people know more than they do. Even Christians have trouble finding 1 John.

One of my key words of late is “tact” and I’m trying to incorporate it more into my life mission. It is using wisdom in how you approach people and communicate with them. In a conversation, for example, instead of going for the jugular, size up the challenge and look for a weakness. Know who you’re talking to and what their personality type is. How do they learn? Will they be receptive to challenges or suggestions? Is there any hint of hostility towards God or the Church? (Trust me, there are many people with underlying hostilities towards the Church. I worked alongside one for two years. She was hurt by a church congregation when her loved one was sick and she wasn’t about to forget it. I knew that inviting her to church or even suggesting she go to church was out. I needed to show her the grace of Jesus and love of Jesus before bringing the “family” into play. Sadly, I lost touch with her when she and her husband moved away.)

Let us be careful when talking to someone in need to the hope of Christ. Tear down all hindrances you can — including your language — for the sake of the Gospel.

— John