I slipped. My husband and I were asked to take on another church commitment. I was trying to decline graciously. In my e-mail response, I wrote, "We cannot help now, but hopefully in another season." I copied my husband on the e-mail and instantly received a one-word reply:
You see, season is one of many words long ago banned from our vocabulary. But my lapse reminded me how hard it is to resist the lure of the handy cliché.
The trouble with prefabricated words is that they don't require or encourage much thinking. Yes, clichés contain truth; that's why they are used so much. But familiarity can turn even truthful words into vain repetitions.
Church-based clichés are nothing new. In 1719, satirist Jonathan Swift warned in "A Letter to a Young Clergyman Lately Entered Into Holy Orders," against "the folly of using old threadbare phrases."
So I did some brainstorming with many Her.meneutics writers to find some of the worst clichés in vogue among Christians. (In fairness, the cliché problem isn't limited to Christians.) The terms here are my personal peeves. If you happen to be fond of any of them, please know I'm not judging you—just your vocabulary, and mine.
Cliche Category #1: "Sugar and Spice and Everything Nice"
I drink my coffee black, prefer more potatoes to dessert, can't abide chick flicks, and have a low tolerance for sweetness (puppies excepted). Sicky-sweet terms that certain Christians seem to love include
-precious (road trip to the Precious Moments Chapel, anyone?)
-come alongside (I can just see the strong arm of a big, burly come-alongsider draping across the shoulders of a grateful come-alongsidee)
-love on, as in, "Let's just love on these precious kids."
-a real heart for God: why doesn't anyone ever talk about having a mind for God, which is just as scriptural?
Cliche Category #2: "Good Words Gone Bad"
These are perfectly fine terms that through misuse, overuse, and abuse have become trite.
I happen to be fond of the ideas denoted by all these words; I lament their downward spiral into triviality. But authentic, for example, has now become like that riddle about silence: "What's broken when its name is spoken?" If you have to call it authentic, you're probably trying too hard and are therefore not really authentic.
Subcategory: "Good Grammar Gone Bad"
These are nouns twisted into verbs and verbs deformed into nouns. The church loves to do this. For example, the noun impact (as in to have an impact) is rendered in Christian-ese to impact something. And rather than seeking, simply, to minister or to live, we now do ministry or do life. Why, oh why, do we do this to words?
Cliche Category #3: "I Heart My Wife and Have the Bumper Sticker to Prove It"
-bride, as in, "My beautiful bride, Tanya, and I went camping this weekend." This word generated lots of buzz recently when Jon Acuff of Stuff Christians Like brilliantly skewered this behind-the-times church edition of society's expired license to call women "girls" (but not men "boys").
-smokin' hot, as in, "I just wanna love on these precious kids and come alongside them as we do life together and then go home to my smokin' hot bride." To me, calling one's wife bride on any day after the honeymoon betrays a rather silly insistence that she is into perpetuity that sweet, young, virginal thing once greeted at the altar—or worse, a tacit acknowledgement that she's not (wink, wink), so let's just make like she is. Smokin' hot, on the other hand, just sounds like someone trying a bit too hard to convince himself.
Cliche Category #4: "Does the Bible Really Say That?"
No harm is probably meant in using these theologically questionable terms, but thoughtlessness easily becomes wrong thinking, as George Orwell famously argued. If we believe in the power of words, we must recognize their thought-shaping ability.
-just. This is a mild but pervasive example that peppers many prayers and is intended, I suppose, to express humility. There's nothing wrong with this unless constant use causes believers to forego coming to God boldly.
-testimony. This one is troubling when it is =used singularly, suggesting that the Christian life is marked by only one testimony when, in fact, every day provides believers with unlimited opportunities for more testimonies.
-Christ-follower. A problematic trend in recent years is calling oneself this rather than a Christian. I understand the embarrassment the label Christian can cause when it aligns one with others who are not as smart, savvy, or theologically and politically progressive as oneself. (Yes, that was sarcasm, another language altogether). But the term Christ-follower is vague enough to apply to any number of good-hearted folks who admire the teachings of the historical Jesus but don't ascribe to the creeds that martyrs like Stephen, Polycarp, Joan of Arc, Tyndale, Cranmer, and Bonhoeffer lived and died for. Keeping this great cloud of witnesses—joined by the likes of Luther, Calvin, Wilberforce, and Mother Teresa—in mind can help one reconsider the privilege and honor it is to bear the name Christian.
What about you? What Christian-ese terms do you find mortifying, annoying, or simply amusing? Post your nominations below.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more
Read These Next
- TrendingDon’t Pretend the Ugandan Homosexuality Law Is ChristianNot everything that’s a sin is a crime—let alone one punishable by death.Français简体中文繁體中文
- From the MagazineWhen Politics Saved 25 Million LivesTwenty years ago, Republicans, Democrats, evangelicals, gay activists, and African leaders joined forces to combat AIDS. Will their legacy survive today’s partisanship?
- RelatedChristian and Missionary Alliance Will Ordain WomenMinisters may now use the title “pastor” regardless of gender.
- Editor's PickPCA’s 50th Anniversary Comes During a Season of GriefPresbyterians expect less fight and more fatigue as they gather following the Covenant shooting and the deaths of Harry Reeder and Tim Keller.