The Pitfalls of Church-Speak and What to Say Instead

How to Say What You Mean and Mean What You Say

In this YouTube video, musician Micah Tyler offers a light-hearted take on church-speak, or what some call Christianese:

Every field has its own jargon that may not be easily understood by others. Some may appear as abbreviations like http (Hyper Text Transfer Protocol) or as specialized language like plug-in (a kind of computer sub-program) or spam bot (a computer program designed to send spam). And just as in the world of computers, it may not be surprising that the Christian world has also developed its own unique language.

If you’re an insider, such specialized language can aid communication. It’s much easier to say “plug-in” than computer sub-program every time, and–to use an example from Micah Tyler’s video–to “fellowship” instead of hanging out together.

But while insider language might communicate well to other insiders, there are pitfalls in using any kind of jargon, including Christianese, or what I call church-speak:

  • It can be obscure and even unintelligible to those not already familiar with the jargon.
  • It can sound spiritually pretentious rather that straightforward, as if you’re trying to make something sound better than it is, or trying to hide something even when you’re not.
  • Jargon sometimes steps over into outright deception, like when “alternative facts” substitute for the truth.

So instead of praying for “a hedge of protection,” why not simply ask God for safety? Instead of “bearing fruit,” why not speak more plainly of “yielding results”? Check out Relevant Magazine’s 20 Christianese Phrases We Really Need to Stop Saying, the Dictionary of Christianese, and my own top seven examples of church-speak that appear below. I’ve paired each example with a better alternative, and added a brief explanation. Which do you agree with? Disagree with? Do you have better alternatives or other examples?

1. I should have been more transparent. – I should have been honest with you.

Don’t compound a lack of transparency with a less than transparent apology. Be honest.

2. I should have been more intentional. – I forgot.

Don’t try to dress up your apology, just ‘fess up.

3. I should have been more pastoral. – I should have treated you with respect.

Don’t use the word “pastoral” to mean caring, courteous, or respectful. Don’t use it at all unless you’re actually in a pastoral role. Be genuinely contrite instead of patronizing.

4. My secretary forgot to give me your message. – I should have called you yesterday.

Don’t make excuses, or try to shift blame to someone else. Take responsibility for your own stuff.

5. I’m saying this to you in Christian love. – Don’t add a veneer of spirituality.

If you need to qualify your phrase in this way, then maybe what you’re saying isn’t as loving as you think it is. Test it by saying what you mean without the added veneer of spirituality.

6. Ministerially speaking. – Don’t exaggerate.

Don’t exaggerate attendance or other numbers so that everything is bigger and better “ministerially speaking.”

7. ACC, RCIA, and other acronyms. – Don’t abbreviate.

Instead of expecting people to understand your alphabet soup, spell out what you mean.

Do you have a pet peeve when it comes to church-speak?
Have you been on the receiving end, and want to offer a plain language alternative?
Please scroll down to leave a reply or share this article.

_____________________

Next Up:  Anatomy of an Apology coming in two weeks. So you can read at your leisure without missing anything, I’d love to send you my free updates. If you haven’t already signed up, please do so here.

Lead Pastor of a mid-size, multi-staff church and the author of Four Gifts, Christ is For Us, Sacred Pauses, and other books on spiritual growth and Christian living. Blogging on Writing and Other Acts of Faith (aprilyamasaki.com) and When You Work for the Church: the good, the bad, and the ugly, and how we can all do better (whenyouworkforthechurch.com).

2 thoughts on “The Pitfalls of Church-Speak and What to Say Instead

Comments are closed.