By Joel Ryan, Crosswalk.com
Try to remember when you were a teen. What were you like? What did you care about? Who were your friends? Now imagine, at age 13 (or even 19), you get invited to a party, but when you get there, no one talks to you. In fact, no one says a word to you the entire night. They just ignore you and leave you in the corner sipping on your watered-down lemonade. Pretty awful experience, right?
Now imagine if, as a teen, your friends invited you out, but instead of ignoring you or refusing to talk to you, they just talk about things you know nothing about. Maybe a sport you don’t watch, a movie you haven’t seen, or a band you don’t listen to.
You never get the chance to participate in the conversation because you don’t even know what they’re talking about. They just keep talking in their own exclusive language about things you know nothing about, laughing at inside jokes they refuse to share with you.
You may have been invited, but you never really felt included when you were with them, and so you walked away feeling unwanted and irrelevant.
Of the two scenarios, which one is worse? They’re both pretty uncomfortable, aren’t they?
How Inviting Is Your ‘Christianese?’
For many teens, this is what it feels like to be around Christians, who have a tendency to use fancy words, religious clichés, biblical metaphors, and spiritual jargon that no one outside of the church understands or would ever use in their own language.
We call it “Christianese,” a language spoken by Christians and only Christians. But how effective is it really? Does Christianese actually invite teens into the conversation, or does it make them feel inadequate, uncomfortable, or left out? Is it necessary...or just outdated or elitist?
To be fair, many of the words and phrases that make up Christianese are pulled from or inspired by passages of Scripture or the writings of prominent Christian thinkers and artists. The way we think and speak is often shaped by the movies we watch, the books we read, the music we listen to, and the people we spend time with. The same is true for Christians, who also rely on traditions, shared language, and recycled ideas to communicate with each other.
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Approach and Motivation Matter
Quoting Scripture or talking about matters of faith with other believers isn’t the issue. It’s how we do it and the motivation behind it that matters. Most Christians don’t speak Christianese because that’s their natural way of speaking. They do so because they’ve somehow been convinced that’s how good Christians are supposed to talk.
This becomes problematic and even unbiblical when Christians:
- feel the need to use token words or approved phrases to fit in or impress other Christians.
- intentionally use a certain language to make others (in both the church and beyond) feel left out or lesser than.
- think they must talk or pray a certain way to be accepted by God.
- use certain phrases and words as a fall-back to cover up what they don’t understand or aren’t willing to admit they don’t know about their faith, God, and the Bible.
- can’t speak honestly about their faith and find their voice stifled by a lingo that isn’t theirs.
Jesus Conversed in Common Language
Jesus Christ came to earth and humbled Himself as a human for a reason. He ate with sinners, spent time with those the church had brushed off, and conversed with common people in the language of fishermen, tax collectors, and common men, women, and children. Jesus didn’t prefer the pretentious religious jargon of the Pharisees. Doing so allowed Him to make connections and build relationships because He had proven He was willing to meet us where we were at.
A brilliant writer or speaker doesn’t need to use fancy or elevated words to communicate simple truths. They choose the right words to explain things in a way their reader or listener will understand. Jesus knew better than anyone how to make sure His message was understood. He spoke in such a way that people felt invited and included, regardless of their age, social status, or education.
It’s Often How, Not What We Say
Sometimes it’s not about what we say but how we say it, and a Christian’s willingness to listen to teenagers and speak their language shows they actually care.
When it comes to youth, Christianese doesn’t invite them to come to God just as they are. In an indirect way, it tells teens that they must adopt a certain style of speech to be heard instead of just communicating from their heart.
Ask yourself: would Jesus use Christianese to talk to the little children he told His disciples to bring before Him? (Matthew 19:14)
Now no one is asking adult Christians to try and mimic the language of teens and young people. No one is asking adults to dumb things down either. Children, teens, and young adults expect adults to act and speak like adults. Would you trust a person who used words that didn’t fit their voice or spoke jargon they didn’t really understand instead of just speaking plainly? It screams fake, doesn’t it?
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Teens Crave Authenticity
In a world that craves authenticity, teens are desperate to find people who not only believe in what they say—but are courageous enough to say it in their own way. As teens grow into adults, they need Christians who can prove that Jesus not only cares about who they are but also about what they have to say.
It goes a long way to know that someone else is willing to listen.
Going back to the two scenarios I mentioned earlier, would anyone be surprised if a teenager, or even an adult for that matter, got offended and just decided to leave the party if no one talked to them? At what point would you stop going to parties or hanging out with friends who chose not to speak your language or intentionally didn’t include you in the conversation?
Value Spiritual Transformation Over Conformity
A Christian who uses Christianese for no other reason than they don’t actually know what they believe (or think they have to talk a certain way to sound more spiritual) has demonstrated that the church isn’t really interested in transformation and growth, but rather conformity.
The Gospel is not irrelevant, never has been, and never will be as “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). Our language, however, is not. It changes, it grows, it evolves, and with it, so must we.
It’s up to Christians to find new ways to communicate the truth of the cross and God’s love for all generations in a way they understand.
Remember, God doesn’t need fancy words or Christianese to measure our sincerity. He looks at the heart and delights in hearing the praises of His people, proclaimed in their voice—young and old, educated and informal.
Teens’ Voices Matter to God
Nothing feels worse than being ignored or told your voice doesn’t matter. When it comes to teens, God is more than willing to get down on their level and tell them how much he loves them in a voice they understand because, guess what, He does the same for us.
So speak plainly. Sometimes the simplest truths hit the hardest, and when it comes to children, teens, and young adults, oftentimes, less is more.
Joel Ryan is an LA-based children’s and young adult author who teaches writing at Life Pacific University. To him, teens and young adults are the most incredible people on the planet, and he is passionate about fueling their passion for the Lord through story and the arts. In his blog, Perspectives Off the Page, Joel discusses all things writing, the creative process, and what makes movies, comic books and great stories so impactful.
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Joel Ryan is an LA-based children’s and young adult author who teaches writing at Life Pacific University. Joel is passionate about fueling young people’s passion for the Lord through storytelling and the arts. In his blog, Perspectives Off the Page, he discusses all things writing, the creative process, and what makes movies, comic books, and great stories so impactful.