May/June 2001


Why I Won't Be...
"Sharing My Testimony"


Among some folks, the ability to speak fluent "Christianese" is a sign of true Christianity. But do these special words and phrases help or hinder the message? Our managing editor takes a frank look at how other people see and hear evangelical Christians-and gives some suggestions as to how we might improve our communication skills.

"Testimony" and illustrations by Monte Wolverton

I just want to come up alongside you. I have a word of knowledge for you. I also have a burden-because God has laid it on my heart to minister to you and disciple you. God spoke to me, and he wanted me to share my testimony with you and to witness to you. The message I'm called to give you is anointed, and I know it will be a real blessing to you.

Chances are, you know some people who talk this way all the time. Maybe you are one. You might know others who don't use this kind of language everywhere, but reserve it for use only when they are in the company of fellow Christians.

In certain groups, the ability to speak fluent Christian jargon is the verification of true Christianity.

Hundreds of thousands of well-meaning Christians talk this way because they believe it helps set them apart as God's people. It's their Christian jargon.

What Is Jargon?

Jargon (or inspeak) is a special set of words or phrases understood by a particular group.

Jargon is useful. The world could not function without jargon. Just about every profession has a jargon. Musicians, publishers, computer software developers, lawyers and accountants use jargon.

Psychology has a separate jargon for each of its several branches.

Jargon is really a kind of shorthand; one word can encompass a broad meaning. It might take paragraphs -- or whole books -- to explain the meaning of one word to the uninitiated.

Without jargon, communication on the job, or in a profession or in a field of knowledge would slow to a crawl.

But how many times have you been in a group of computer aficionados as they started throwing around terms like USB, I/O port, co-processor, jpeg and bandwidth?

Or perhaps you found yourself among a group of printers who started talking about bi-metal plates, blankets, slurring, density, web breaks and low folios.

If you've ever been in a situation like this, one of the following things might have happened:

· You pretended to understand (and probably misunderstood) what everyone was talking about.

· You became bored and annoyed and wondered why the group was so socially inept and insensitive.

· You were intimidated and frustrated, so you left.

· You were impressed by the esoteric knowledge of the group, and you wanted to learn more about how to use these mysterious words.

The last one probably didn't happen.

The point is that if jargon is an aid to communication inside a particular group, it is a hindrance to communication outside the group.

Christian Jargon

Christian jargon falls into two categories -- which we have taken the liberty of naming. The first category we'll call:

Theologyspeak. Christian clergy, theologians and theology students use some of these words -- like sanctification and justification and predestination and the procession of the Holy Spirit.

Most of us don't use these words in our everyday conversation -- or at all. It is simply not necessary for us to use them.

However, if you're a theologian, a member of the clergy or engaged in extensive study of Christian doctrine -- you just can't escape these words.

For example, two theologians discussing supralapsarianism (a legitimate theological term whose meaning I cannot recall) would be at a distinct disadvantage if they could not use the word supralapsarianism. They would either be compelled to explain the concept fully each time they mentioned it, or they would be forced to use vague replacement terms like whachamacallit.

Nevertheless, the quickest way for a pastor to cure a congregation's insomnia is to announce: "Today I'm going to talk about justification."

And it's a safe bet that if such theological jargon would put most Christians to sleep, any non-Christians would fall into a coma.

That's one kind of Christian jargon. The other kind we'll call:

 Evangelicalese. We'll call it this because it seems to be limited to the American evangelical community. Evangelicalese is largely absent from the mainstream Protestant denominations and the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches.

Since only a minority of Christians really use Evangelicalese, calling it Christian jargon or Christianese would be a misnomer.

Those of us who are evangelical Christians place great emphasis on evangelism, or sharing the good news about Jesus. Many evangelical Christians pride themselves in relating better to the average person on the street. In an effort to be more up-to-date, we brought the world contemporary Christian music. We have also created more accessible and popular worship styles. Yet, ironically, in spite of our goals and purposes, many of us insist on speaking a language that leaves the average person clueless.

If we firmly believe in communicating the message God has entrusted to us to people outside of our group, then we should use the kind of language that makes communication easy.

Unfortunately, Evangelicalese is only the tip of the isolation iceberg for evangelical Christians. Because we want a safe haven for ourselves and our families, we have created our own culture -- separate from the rest of the world.

But this is not what Jesus instructed us to do. Before returning to heaven, he told his disciples, "Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation" (Mark 16:15). While it is clear from other scriptures that Christians are to be separate from the evil in the world, we are to go into the world to share the good news. That implies that we should interact with people in our communities and that we should speak their language.

Some might claim that Evangelicalese is merely using biblical words and phrases, with which there can certainly be nothing wrong, can there?

  Yes and no.

Indeed, some Evangelicalese words do come right out of the Bible -- and some don't. The ones that come out of the Bible usually come out of the 1611 King James Version (KJV) -- and now, almost 500 years later, the meanings of those words have morphed into something quite different. Of course, even if a word or phrase does come out of the KJV, we should be aware that most normal people don't run around speaking 17th century English anymore.

So it behoves us -- (now there's a good candidate for the Evangelicalese lexicon -- behove. It's rarely used by normal people, and it's in the KJV: Luke 24:46; Hebrews 2:17) -- to examine some of our favorite Evangelicalese words and phrases, in the hope that we can find replacements that will communicate Christian concepts just as well or better to average folks.

By the way -- I'm not saying it's wrong to speak Evangelicalese. It's certainly not a sin -- if it were, we can rest assured some fundamentalists would have already let us know. I am simply suggesting that Christians should be careful how they use it. Among some groups of Christians, Evangelicalese might be appropriate. But the average person will probably want to get up and leave if you use the word:

Disciple -- "Hey, buddy! Have you been discipled yet? I'm going to disciple you!"

Our word disciple comes from a Latin word meaning "student." But the Greek word translated "disciple" in the New Testament means more than "student." It also means one who imitates his or her teacher.

But in Evangelicalese, we use disciple as a verb. While it is nowhere translated as a verb in the KJV, a few scriptures use a Greek verb which means "to make a disciple" (Matthew 13:52; 27:57; 28:19; Acts 14:21).

I suggest that it's really a lot simpler to take a cue from some of the newer Bible translations. The New Century Version (NCV), for example, translates disciple as "follower."

But in most cases, instead of using disciple as a verb, the Bible uses the words teach or instruct.

Instead of discipling people, we could simply instruct them or teach them. Isn't that easy? Let's try another.

  Minister -- "Do you mind if I just minister to you?"

In modern English the noun minister means pastor or clergy. A ministry is an institution involved in service. Evangelicalese takes it a step further and uses the word as a verb. It sounds nice and biblical. But is there another term that might be more palatable to most people?

In 2 Corinthians 3:6, we read, "Who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament" (KJV).

Contrast this with the NCV: "He made us able to be servants of a new agreement."

So what we really mean by ministry is just service. Why not say that?

  Witness -- "I was on my way to church Bingo, but I had to stop and witness to some sinners."

This is a good Bible word -- used hundreds of times in the KJV. It's also used as part of our legal process. But is it the best word for Christians to use for sharing the story of Jesus with someone?

Acts 23:11 in the KJV reads: "Be of good cheer, Paul: for as thou hast testified of me in Jerusalem, so must thou bear witness also at Rome."

The New International Version (NIV) reads: "Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome."

The NCV reads: "Be brave. You have told people in Jerusalem about me. You must do the same in Rome."

Telling people about Jesus. That sounds pretty natural. But no, we can't just tell people -- we have to "witness" to them.

Witnessing often implies that unless the "witnessee" accepts Jesus on the spot, your responsibility as a Christian is over. The practice of witnessing can turn people into objects -- tally marks on the cover of your Bible. But the Christian duty is to love all human beings, and the message of Christ is most effectively shared in the context of a sound friendship -- not a random encounter.

  Testimony -- "I shared my testimony with the supermarket checker."

This is sort of the same as witness. It's a word out of the KJV that has been picked up and used by well-meaning Christians. In "real life," testimony is something you give in court. People get uncomfortable when you tell them you're going to share your testimony with them. Just tell them your story, and they'll be happier.

Have a heart for -- "She has a heart for ministry."

While this is not a biblical phrase, it just sounds more spiritual than saying that someone has a preference or an aptitude -- or -- simply that someone loves to serve or is motivated to service.

Heart, however, is a biblical word, referring to the center of human mental and moral activity, both rational and emotional. In the ancient world, people did not realize that the brain was the center of mental activity. They believed that emotion and thought were housed in the heart or liver.

It is still popular to refer to the heart, metaphorically, as the center of emotion or motivation.

But using the word heart in every other sentence can leave some people feeling as though they are swimming through a vat of sentimental goo, a recreational activity which not everyone enjoys -- least of all, men.

Anointed -- "His preaching was anointed."

In Evangelicalese -- especially in charismatic circles, the word anointed or anointing is used excessively, almost as though it had magical properties.

Biblically, anointing was a ritual dating from Old Testament times, involving the placing of olive oil on someone's head to set them apart for the office of priest or king.

In New Testament times, the oil became symbolic of the Holy Spirit. The terms Messiah and Christ mean "the anointed one," or one set apart by God for a specific duty or office -- in this case Lord and Savior.

The ritual of anointing the sick is mentioned in James 5:14, however the NCV offers an alternative rendition of this scripture: "Anyone who is sick should call the church's elders. They should pray for and pour oil on the person in the name of the Lord."

Pour oil on doesn't sound quite as spiritual as anointing -- but it is.

The Bible also speaks of the anointing of the Holy Spirit that we as Christians receive through Jesus (1 John 2:27, NIV). But here the NCV replaces anointing with the simple word gift. When we say anointing, what we really mean is that a person has a special gift from God. Why not say that?

Burden -- "I have a burden for witnessing to people."

In the Bible, a burden is a metaphor for a responsibility or duty. Those words probably communicate your meaning better to most people.

Fellowship -- "After services, we always stay and fellowship."

The various Greek words translated fellowship mean companionship, sharing, participation or communication. Normal people would talk or converse, but in Evangelicalese, we fellowship.

Yet, even in the KJV, the word is never used as a verb. In place of the noun fellowship, newer translations, such as NCV, use the less archaic alternative terms above. That would be a good idea for us.

  Come up alongside -- "He came up alongside me in my hour of need."

While this phrase is not found in the Bible, it does evoke a sort of nautical imagery of human companionship -- one vessel coming up alongside another. This can be pleasantly metaphorical the first time you hear it. Subsequent hearings of this phrase become less pleasant.

Furthermore, many people may interpret your offer to "come up alongside" them as an invasion of their personal space. It's much easier and safer to simply ask someone if they'd like to talk.

God spoke to me -- "I was reading the funny papers, and God spoke to me."

In most cases, this means the person had an intuition, or they felt as though they were being instructed by God through some circumstance, or they had a strong feeling that God wanted them to do a particular thing.

In a few cases, the person means it quite literally.

While the Lord spoke directly and audibly to some individuals in the Bible, suffice it to say that such visible or audible manifestations of God (called theophanies in theological jargon) are not normative for Christians.

And in any case, the phrase is not something most people want to hear from you -- especially in a confined space. You will not positively influence or persuade most people with this one. You will scare them away.

Perhaps you can think of more Evangelicalese phrases and words. Perhaps some are localized to your denomination or church. You can do what we've done in this article -- look the phrase up in the Bible or dictionary, find out what it really means and find a better way to say it.

Once again, Evangelicalese is okay in the right context. But it is not more spiritual or biblical than any other way of talking. And when used among people -- even other Christians -- who are not part of Evangelicalese culture, it may have the result of alienation and frustration.

At Plain Truth Ministries we try to avoid Evangelicalese in our publications, tapes and radio broadcasts -- although sometimes it is difficult. We make an effort to use normal English to make the good news about Jesus plain and clear.

If you find yourself slipping into Evangelicalese at inappropriate times, here are three things you can do.

1. Take note of the way people react to you as you talk with them. Do they look puzzled, confused, irritated -- or frightened? If they do, you probably need to take more care about the way you say what you say.

2. Find a good Bible translation or Bible paraphrase in contemporary speech.

Hundreds of translators, scholars and writers are working hard every day to bring God's message to people in a way they can understand. There are many good products to choose from.

3. Think, write, talk and pray in normal language. The more you do this on your own, the more inclined you will be to do it around others.

Paul told us that he became all things to all men for the sake of the gospel (1 Corinthians 9:22-23). Many uses of Evangelicalese seem to violate this principle.

There. I've come up alongside you, witnessed, unloaded my burden and ministered to you. 

JUST SAY WHAT YOU MEAN

Every industry and subculture has its own jargon. Every type of organization has buzzwords that help the people in them communicate effectively and efficiently with their co-workers. These words mean something to those "in the know," but are meaningless to those on the outside. Have you ever visited a place of business and overheard a conversation that was full of jargon? You are sure that the people are talking, but you have no idea what they are saying.

As a Field Artillery officer in the army, I remember numerous occasions having a conversation like this.

"Python one-six, Python one-six, Cobra Gunner."

"Python one-six, Go."

"Python one-six, Cobra Gunner, sierra papa in two zero mikes, whiskey alpha niner, niner, tree, eight, eight, one."

"Cobra Gunner, Python one-six, lima charlie, wilco, out."

Do you know what? That messy, confusing sentence was a complete conversation, an order from higher headquarters telling a subordinate unit when to move. Did it make any sense to you? Probably not, unless you had been in the military and remembered all the acronyms and characters in the phonetic alphabet. Yet, it makes perfect sense to people serving in the army.

People in the computer industry are notorious for using buzzwords and jargon that the average citizen does not understand. They use words like RAM, BIOS, server, byte, ASCII, ISP, HTML and DOS. These terms, used by people who program and maintain computers, don't mean much to the average person, even the average computer user, because they don't have the training or expertise to engage in conversations where these terms are used.

Did you ever try to listen to a teenager talk? Their speech is filled with what grammarians call "filler" words. These are words that are used to "fill" the silence until another, more legitimate word is spoken. In other words, the conversations of the majority of teenage girls would be rather short without the words "like" and "you know."

In addition, many interviews of professional athletes and coaches would be eliminated if you removed inconsequential phrases such as "we just played our game," "they were the better team," "we gave 110 percent" and "we took what they gave us." What insights do they expect us to gain from comments like that?

In the Christian church, we throw around some pretty unusual words and phrases also. In our sermons and Bible study lessons, we sometimes use words like propitiation, justification, indwelling or salvific. As Christians, we have been known to use phrases like "washed in the blood of the lamb" and "slain in the Spirit." Just what do all these phrases mean? I had to go to seminary to learn many of them, so I know that the average non-believer is lost and confused when Christians throw around church jargon.

If we want people to believe in our Savior, we have to introduce them to Jesus using their lingo, not ours. During his earthly ministry, Jesus taught using parables -- short stories that dealt with topics that the average person could relate to and understand. When we teach or preach, we should ensure that our vocabulary is understandable, not piously puzzling.

Bill Easum and Tom Bandy made a great impression on me recently when they stated that their ministry's goal was to answer this question: "What is it about my Christian faith that the world cannot live without?" The answer to that question, stated in everyday terminology and shared with people who do not know Christ as Savior, will usher in revival. In other words -- don't speak Christianese, just tell them the difference Jesus has made in your life.

What attracted you to faith in Christ? How did God reach you? Share that with someone else; just share it in a manner they can understand. As Jesus said, "Go and tell." Just go and tell in normal English.

-- Trey Graham

 

Return to Plain Truth Ministries Home Page