Matthew R. Perry

Should preachers avoid Christianese in sermons?

In Uncategorized on May 6, 2006 at 3:54 pm

I just came across an article for preachers entitled, “Using the Right Words: Insider Language Excludes People.”

Here are the two opening paragraphs:

In most sermons for Christians, or any Christian magazine, there are usually very many jargon words and phrases. We feel comfortable with them! Using them makes us feel that we belong! In prayer too, we love to use these words, as humorist Jim Watkins demonstrates.

Here are just a few:

“born again, salvation, saved, sinner, new birth, Savior, justification, Holy Spirit, testimony, evangelical, assurance, redeemed, redemption, saved, mission, outreach, repentance, witness, confess, found the Lord, have a burden.” This is the language we must unlearn and stop using (highlighting mine), if we are to communicate effectively with non-Christians! They are ‘insider terms’ which exclude the typical unchurched person. We must learn to get inside their heads!

He notes that we should even stop using the words like sin, repentance, and faith. What do you all think? I think it is misguided. The Scriptures communicate this verbage for a reason. Plus, whenever you come on to a new job, there are new technical terms you are to pick up in order to understand how thinks function. Should Christianity be any different?

I welcome your comments.

  1. I wonder exactly what he means for someone to use in place of “Holy Spirit”?

    Obviously, it’s important to know one’s audience. That can determine what translation of the Bible to use, what vocabulary to use and how much you have to define.

    I see no problem with defining words as they are used. Often that is better than not using the words at all. What’s annoying is when a pastor continually defines the words when there aren’t actually any non-Christians there.

    I had an interesting experience over the past couple of weeks. I’m teaching a NT Survey class at the local IWU extension. The first week we met, I gave them a pretest to gauge how much they knew of the Bible. Surprisingly, it came back that by and large, this was a class that had very little background. Some I don’t think had any at all. Suddenly, I find myself in what is actually more of an evangelistic effort. That changed how I prepared my class for the second week of class, and what translation I am using with them.

    Back to the idea of language in the church– what can be jettisoned are some of the cliches that come across as stale or cheesy. Your post mentions “have a burden.” That might qualify in some contexts as well as “it’s a blessing to me” and others.

    Again, audience is the key. And if you’re in doubt define. But I don’t think we have to jettison specific Christian vocabulary, especially theological terms. We just can’t assume that everyone knows what they mean.

    Case in point… the word “gospel.” I asked my Sunday School class on Easter Sunday to define “gospel” for me. No one got it right. I asked the class at IWU the same thing on the first night. They couldn’t get it either.

    Now we can either define “gospel” or simply use “good news.” I think from now on, I’m going to simply use the latter. Gospel isn’t even a biblical word anyway, it’s a word out of the Old English. Here’s the etymology from a dictionary I have on my computer:

    ORIGIN Old English gōdspel, from gōd [good] + spel [news, a story] (see spell), translating ecclesiastical Latin bona annuntiatio or bonus nuntius, used to gloss ecclesiastical Latin evangelium, from Greek euangelion ‘good news’ (see evangel ); after the vowel was shortened in Old English , the first syllable was mistaken for god [God.]

    That’s too much in my opinion. It’s one thing to have to bridge the Greek to English. But in the example above, I’m having to go from Greek to Latin to Old English to Modern English. I think “good news” works just fine.

    If I’m talking with someone, especially a non-Christian, what will make more sense? to say, “Have you heard the gospel of Jesus Christ?” or “Have you heard the good news of Jesus Christ?” At the very least, “good news” gives me an intro to explain what he has done.

    Just some thoughts.

  2. Marva Dawn makes what I believe to be a strong argument for the necessity of using such language for it is OUR language – the language of the church, the language of Christians. It is part of our heritage and our culture, our story if you will. I believe this argument is laid out in her book Reaching out without Dumbing Down, but I am not sure and my section of books on worship is buried at the moment.

    Point being – define instead of exclude. We must cherish the rich heritage we have been handed down through Scripture and church history and we should seek to define and explain said tradition instead of removing it from our vocabulary. To do such a thing is treason to our heritage and disastrous to our message. It will rob the gospel of its riches.

    But on the other hand we must always remember that the gospel, our Savior, etc. is not limited to our mere human language but far exceeds it.

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