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Using the right words

Insider language excludes people

“How difficult it is to be simple”
– Vincent Van Gogh

“He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary”
– William Faulkner (speaking about Ernest Hemingway)

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 ‘Christianese’ 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, 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!

You mean, “I can’t even say ‘sin’, ‘repentance’, ‘faith’?”

That’s right – there are alternative ways of expressing all these concepts which will be much more meaningful. Rather than being any sort of compromize, they in fact give a clearer and better understood meaning. Read more:

Watch this challenging 1-minute video clip:

‘Found in translation’

We must assume that those we contact know nothing about Christianity. A Barna Research survey found that in US (a country with a church-going rate ten times that of most other countries), only one third of adults could define the term ‘the gospel’. 7 out of 10 had no clue what ‘John 3:16’ meant. 52% of people in UK do not know who Pontius Pilate was.(Yet, surprisingly, a similar percentage do believe in the virgin birth.)

Christian readers may commend the use of such words because it makes them feel comfortable, but we are not writing for Christians! You may indeed get criticism from Christians for not using such words. Live with it! Website writer Iyohi says she felt guilty for a year because she had seen it stated that pages should make a Christian statement by placing a Bible or a cross at the top of a web page, whereas she was rightly trying to “make my main pages nonchalant and less Christian [in appearance] just to get people to click.”

Here’s a testimony written with and without jargon: Angie's Story.

“This is for them, not for us”

In all our writing, we must keep in mind our target non-Christian reader. We are not writing to Christians, or even to people likely to have any significant Christian understanding. The test for every word, idea, concept should be: “Will they understand this? This is for them, not for us.” Otherwise, non-Christians will quickly come to their own conclusion: “This is for them, not for us.”

We must also realise that some non-Christians may be familiar with Christian jargon words due to a Christian upbringing, but can be repelled by words from the past that they regard as cringe-making and religious. They too need the message in non-threatening neutral language, which can bypass their ‘filters’ and smuggle the concept into their minds. Evangelicals as a group are viewed in a very negative way in most countries. Surprisingly this is true even in America, as a recent Barna Research study demonstrates. In many countries in continental Europe, evangelicals are perceived as a cult.

Charity, a Christian who visited a lowkey-start evangelistic site recently, saw the significance of this approach, writing: “It is really cool to see how God is using this to reach the world! At first I was sure it was a New Age thing because it was so down-to-earth and easy to understand. It kept me interested!”

And if this resource page was written in business-seminar-speak, we would no doubt talk of ‘leveraging new conceptual paradigms’ and the like. But we don’t!

Reaching the inoculated ones

Both C S Lewis and Stanley Jones spoke of people who have been exposed to just enough Christianity to inoculate them against the real thing. These people are another group for whom we should avoid jargon – not because they do not know it, but because they do! As past (or even present) church attenders, they are familiar with these religious words yet do not discern the spiritual meaning behind them, at least so far as their own lives are concerned. And if they also view Christianity negatively for whatever reason, these familiar words will carry negative and possibly hurtful baggage.

But if those same words are re-expressed in neutral everyday language, the meaning may be suddenly illuminated. Even committed Christians often comment that a verse paraphrased in, for example, The Message, brings a powerful meaning to something which had for them lost its power through over-familiarity.

Capitalization

It is also wise to avoid capitalizing pronouns referring to God and Jesus, for two reasons: Modern Bible translations avoid capitals for these reasons. Indeed, the King James Bible never did either – it was a much later idea. Here’s a KJV page printed in 1634, just 23 years after it was first published.

Also consider whether you need to give a Bible reference when you quote a piece of scripture. As you are writing for non-Christians, they may not understand the reference system anyway. Rather than writing for example, ‘1 Cor 2:13’, we can say that the words were ‘written by Paul, an early Christian leader’. This email from northern Europe illustrates the widespread unfamiliarity with the Bible:

“I am a reader of your web-site, which I read with interest. But there is some things, which I don’t understand: John 10:10b, NIV. What it is NIV? Could you tell me please, what it is? The Book of Revelation and where it can be found? What is Acts?’

It is possible to link to Bible references (a single verse, group of different verses, or whole passage/chapter) in a range of languages and versions at Bible Gateway. You can also display Bible verses within small popup windows or as or use annotations.

Organizational names may also contain off-putting jargon words – in an evangelistic setting, it may be appropriate to choose a different name to brand the site.

More reading

More pages about ‘Christianese’
Read more Firefox iconrelated pages within the Problems in evangelism menu links
book graphicrecommended books on reaching outsiders, including free downloads
WMPlayer iconvaluable online videos about web ministry
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