Hey Brother

The Right Words for the Job

Oct 16, 2017

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Hey Brother,

I don’t know if you know this, but a lot of Christians speak their own special secret language. We like to call it “Christianese.” Perhaps you’ve heard of it? It’s when certain phrases are used so often between Christians that it becomes part of the vernacular and the “culture” of Christianity. They are the kind of phrases that to outsiders may make little to no sense at all!

My personal favorite is “hedge of protection.” Let me give you a scenario for context just in case you haven’t come across it. You are at a prayer group and someone is sick, moving, or entering the mission field, and the person praying asks for a “hedge of protection” to be put around that person. Now, most of us know what they mean, but let’s look at it from an outsider’s point of view. What is a hedge? Well according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary it’s a “fence or boundary formed by a dense row of shrubs.” So, what are we asking for when we pray for a “hedge of protection?” A defensive mighty wall of shrubbery?

Why would we ask for that? I mean, if we look at the power of God, and the level of protection He can offer, why did Christian culture pick shrubbery? In II Kings 6:17, God showed Elisha and his servant that “the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire” protecting them. Why didn’t we pick that?! I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have an army of fiery chariots protecting me over shrubbery any day! By the way, there is a Scripture reference that the phrase “hedge of protection” is derived from. You get bonus points if you post it in the comments below.

There are many more examples of Christianese, and there is nothing inherently wrong with using them. Language is, after all, a tool for us to communicate ideas. Cultural groups develop these types of phrases as a sort of shorthand to communicate common ideas among those in the group. The issue I see can arise when we use our Christian vernacular to try to communicate with, and witness to, non-Christians.

I have a background in science. My dad is a scientist, and my brothers all have degrees in science and engineering. If I approach a non-Christian that has a scientific mindset and say that God is a spirit and He lives in heaven, which is a spiritual realm, they may associate those words with things like ghosts or even magic. However, if I tell them God is in a higher dimension that’s outside the four-dimensional world we perceive (length, width, height, and time), that description may not seem too outlandish to them. It may even help us strike up a conversation about God and the Gospel!

Likewise, when missionaries translate the Bible, they first immerse themselves in the culture of the people. I heard of one missionary trying to explain to people in Africa Isaiah 1:18 where it says “though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.” They had no idea what snow was, so the purity of white snow meant nothing to them. Instead, the missionary explained it as black as pure coal. That imagery helped them understand the purification that happens when the Lord forgives our sins.

The Apostle Paul is another great example of a Christian using the language and culture of a people to present the Gospel. In Acts 17, Paul visited Mars Hill and discovered that the Athenians were so concerned that they missed a god they should be worshiping that they created an altar “TO THE UNKNOWN GOD” (Acts 17:23). Paul used this to explain to them that the unknown god was actually the one true God. He didn’t start by quoting Jewish law or tradition to them. Instead, he presented the Gospel to them by using their cultural understanding rather than his own. On the other hand, the author of the biblical book of Hebrews used specific analysis of the Jewish Law (the Old Testament) to explain to a Jewish audience that Jesus was Christ, the Messiah.

There is nothing wrong with our Christianese phrases, but we need to remember that unless they’re Scripture, these phrases are not divine or holy. Sometimes we treat them that way. We should use any and all tools at our disposal — whether it’s language, art, radio, or even a simple blog — to connect with others and present the good news of Christ. The language isn’t important; the message is.

Kristopher Galuska
Family Radio Staff

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