Words and phrases lose their meaning if they are misused often enough. As Christians we should be able to see this easily enough in that very word: “Christian.” It is a religious affiliation/cult/sect/statistic/cultural background/genuine relationship with Christ. So, from a broader cultural perspective, it is nothing at all. Instead those of us who actually affiliate ourselves with Jesus are “born again”, “Christ-followers”, “believers”, “disciples”, or something else.
But each of those phrases suffers, or is at risk of suffering, from a different malady – overuse. When a word or phrase is over used it doesn’t lose its meaning; it loses its impact. It becomes a cliché.
Among the subset of Christians (the genuine sort, not the other kinds) seeking to be culturally savvy there is a rejection of these types of clichés. They are discarded as “Christianese”, that lingo particular to the inner circles of those well-versed in churchy ways. This is intended to be (and often is) a good thing since it is an effort to say things with both meaning and impact.
Trouble arises when we realize that whichever phrases have been adopted to replace the clichés simply also become clichés in time. Christian becomes born again Christian becomes Christ follower which is fast becoming a cliché and must therefore be replaced.
Here’s the problem. Those phrases that have been discarded as Christianese, and therefore unusable, are usually powerfully true. Often, they’re straight out of scripture, and when we reach the point of discarding God’s word as cliché the problem is ours, not the words’.
“Accept Jesus as your Lord and savior.”
“Give your life to Christ.”
“God is Love.”
“Submit your way to the Lord.”
“God is our father.”
And I could go on. These are examples of those kinds of phrases that are so easy to set aside as passé and over-used and therefore useless. And each of them is more profoundly true than any of us can probably grasp. We cannot throw out such succinct power-packages of theology.
No, the solution is not in finding new phrase, but in breathing life into the old ones.
How we say phrases matters. Do we quote them as rote, tired, but reliable old stand-bys? Or do we speak them with timing and emphasis to bring out the realities of words like “Lord” and “savior” and “father”?
What explanation we give them matters. We don’t live in a churched society. We can’t assume our language is the one spoken by most people, but that doesn’t mean we can’t use the language. It just means we need to provide explanations with patience and offer room for questions and skepticism.
Above all, though, we need to remember that nobody is convinced to believe that Jesus is Lord or Savior by words alone. The Spirit gives life whether it’s through clichés spoken by sinners or fresh new phraseology. So let’s speak the truth with as much explanation and emphasis as we can and remember that it is not the words or the speaker who matter but the unseen mover.