Thursday, June 25, 2009 | By: Zachary Bartels

An Annotated Guide to Christian Buzzwords

In my last post, I thoroughly lamented the sad state of affairs in which American Christians know every Christian buzzword/phrase and how to use it in holy dialogue, but know very little actual Scripture. As an appendix, below please find an alphabetical list of buzzwords and Christian clichés and what I don't like about each--a good old fashioned Pastor Zach rant! Good times.

I've been adding to this list for several months now so, yeah, it's insanely long. Take it in a few bite-size pieces. Maybe it will bring you a cynical chuckle or two in the coming days.

Oh, and please feel free to add your own in the comments section. I'm sure I'm missing some doozies.

Authentic - Yeah, let's all be really intentional about being "authentic." We can probably synthetically produce authentic authenticity. (Cf. "relevant" and "engaging culture.")

Best Life Now - This idea has nothing to do with the Christian life during the 42 months (i.e. between the first and second comings of Christ), unless you consider being lied about, mocked, persecuted, and facing "all kinds of trials" as your idea of "the good life." BTW, do you think they still have this conversation over at Hachette Book Group: "What do you think should be the book cover for this one, Joel?" "Oh, I don't know... How about my insufferable face taking up every square centimeter with that creepy smile airbrushed to be so white that it burns people's retinas?" "Sounds good!"

Christ-follower - I've mostly noticed this listed as people's "religion" on social networking sites. I guess there's not really anything wrong with this term per se (apart from its grammatical awkwardness), but whenever we start using a new word/term in place of an already established word, I have to ask: why? What's wrong with Christian? It's what the "Christ-followers" were first called in Antioch and we've been called Christians ever since. So is "Christ-follower" supposed to be a translation (rather than transliteration) of Χριστιανός? That's over-reaching. I suspect that the real motivation is to set oneself over and against the masses of people who wear the name "Christian," to be part of an elite group of people that take this Jesus stuff much more seriously than those "Christians." And to that I say: yikes.

Comfort Zone - This was probably a good term when it was the new buzzword, but it's definitely run its course. Not to mention that it's misused more often than not these days. Sure, Jesus called us to a life of making disciples and being disciples, which often involves being uncomfortable, but that doesn't mean that we're all called to do everything that makes us squirm. If you're scared to death of speaking before a group, that doesn't mean God is calling you to "get out of your comfort zone" and preach on a Sunday morning. Quite the opposite.

Community - This falls under the category of "regular words that were re-cast as buzzwords and now make me want to throw up." I think I'll just leave it at that.

Conversation - Ditto. This is not a particularly biblical word. It only occurs twice in the ESV, once in the Old Testament and once in the New. The NT reference is to the two disciples on their way to Emmaus, talking about how Jesus has died and how they had hoped he would be the one to redeem Israel. Then Jesus came alongside them and did the craziest thing. He didn't say, "Well, just keep being authentic and asking questions." No, he stepped into their "conversation" and provided answers from Scripture. Starting at Genesis, he walked them through the whole Old Testament, explaining how it was all about HIM. Why is it that the new "conversation buzzword" is used to move us in the opposite direction?

Creating a Space (or "Creating a Sacred Space") - Borrowed capital from New Age. I say they can keep it. Our desire to turn spiritual practices into disciplines and rituals by which we enter God's presence is unhelpful at best and blasphemous at worst. And really, only God can actually create space. Besides, the "space" doesn't matter when we approach God (John 4:23, Heb 4:15-16).

Decision for Christ - The Holy Grail of Finneyism and a perfect example of exalting the byproduct. My "decision for Christ" can only take place as a result of Christ choosing me (John 15:16). Shouldn't we be making a much bigger deal of the latter?

Do Church - It's almost like we choose these buzzwords based on maximum grammatical awkwardness. The meaning of this one is kind of elusive. It either means, "Let's commence diaconal ministries" or "Let's make everything really exciting and hip" (cf. "relevant" below). Either way, "do church" is a case of "verbing" (which is, itself, a case of "verbing," ironically)--taking a noun, "church," and making it into an action. But here's the thing: when the New Testament refers to the church, it's using a word that started out as a verb (ek-kaleo, "to call out.") I don't want to make too much of this, since the noun form (ἐκκλησία) had long meant "assembly" when Jesus' earthly ministry began. But either way, when we "verb" the word "church," the action/focus should be on assembling (something we do) or being called out (something that happens to us)...yet that's not what people mean by "do church."

Do Life Together - This may be the most awkward phrase ever. And for what? There's already a verb form of the word "life." When you want to know where someone resides, do you ask, "So where do you do life?" No, you say, "Where do you live?" But we don't want to say that people in the church "live together." Never mind that the New Testament church pretty much did live together (Acts 2:43-47). If we're not going to follow in their footsteps, let's just drop the pretense. Or else, to be consistent, next time your vehicle is in the shop, ask your co-worker if you can "do car together" tomorrow.

Emergent/Emerging - Yeah, whatever it is, it's done emerged. All that remains is to push down on that little silver handle.

Engaging Culture - If you want to be worldly, just say it. If you really want to be like Paul on Mars Hill, then don't sit there and say, "How can we engage culture?" You've just pretty much guaranteed that you won't. (Cf. "authentic" and "relevant").

Faith Journey - Ugh.

Felt Needs - I dealt with this one in my sermon on the Gospel Driven Church. You may want to check that out. Suffice it to say, Jesus never worried about people's felt needs because fallen humans purposefully create false "felt needs" to distract us from our true need (see Romans 1). Every time someone came to Jesus with a felt need, he re-directed them to what they really needed. If they weren't willing to make the shift, he sent them packing (e.g. rich young ruler, woman at the well, the masses seeking bread, James and John, etc.).

Incarnational - As in "incarnational ministry" or "incarnational living." No one quite knows what this means. I'm pretty sure it has to do with not showering, watering down the Gospel, and being exceedingly smug.

Invite Jesus into your Heart - Much more manageable than dying to self and being resurrected with Christ. Comes from our old buddy Finney's influence. For some reason, we don't think children will understand the concepts of repentance, faith, and atonement, so we hit them with an abstract, poorly constructed metaphor that is found nowhere in Scripture instead. Good call.

It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship - My boy Ted Kluck had this to say in my recent interview with him:

"[That buzz phrase] is bogus. It is about religion. When Paul was confronted with the altar to the unknown God, he didn’t respond with: “Hey, mystery, that’s great! You have an unknown God…I have an unknown God…let’s do life together and be authentic in our uncertainty.” He preached. He implored Timothy to preach, and to guard the good deposit. I love relationships as much as the next guy, but I also love the gospel and think that if it was important enough for Paul to endure beatings and imprisonment for, it’s something I can and should take a stand on myself. In that same Acts passage, Paul ended with (v. 31) “For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead."

Let go and let God - I dealt with this common cop-out in my most recent sermon on Nehemiah.

Missional - In his book Don't Stop Believing, Michael Wittmer writes:

"It doesn’t help when postmodern innovators punt many of the important questions into the inscrutable realm of mystery. Earlier this year I attended a conference on the missional church. When asked for a definition of the term missional, a leader of the conference mysteriously proclaimed that the concept was too lofty for him to explain. Then he asked us to accept his inability to define it as proof that he understood it, implying that anyone who could put words to it would prove that they did not get it. So if we think we know, we don’t; and if we don’t know, we do. At this point I realized that I had just lost two days of my life to a cause that even the leaders knew little about!" (p. 135)

Purpose-Driven® (or "living out one's purpose") - A kit you can buy to make your church instantly awesome.

Red Letter Christians - A self-designation that means I take the words and ethic of Jesus more seriously than confessional or doctrinal Christians. It also indicates a complete misunderstanding of inspiration, as the "red letters" are no more authoritative and no more the Word of God than the black letters. Again, Jesus himself said that the whole of Scripture is about Him.

Relevant - 1. A cool magazine and now-defunct publisher. 2. A once-helpful buzzword. When Christianity had cornered the market on irrelevance (e.g. Stryper, Lord's Gym T-shirts, and Jesus dog tags), this term came in as a helpful litmus test. Unfortunately, it's been over-used until all meaning has been sucked out of it. Let it die. If we all stop saying it now, then the magazine won't have to change its name.

Seeker-sensitive - What Jesus was trying to be when he told the crowds they had to eat His flesh and drink His blood. Then, when many people walked away, he turned to his disciples and said, "You gonna leave too?" SEN-SI-TIVE!

Soul Tsunami - A term coined before we all equated tsunamis with thousands and thousands of people tragically killed. The idea behind it is that we shouldn't ask God to bless the work we do for the Kingdom, but rather should find where God is already blessing and glom on to it. My first reaction to this is, doesn't somebody have to first start doing the work for the initial blessing to happen? More importantly, though, what if Moses, Gideon, Deborah, Esther, Nehemiah, Ezekiel, John the Baptist, the Virgin Mary, St. Paul, etc. had decided not to obey and begin the work, but rather to find where God was already blessing someone else to lead Israel out of bondage, defeat the heathen, rescue the Jews, build the wall, bear the Messiah into the world, or prepare the way for him...?

Visioning - Another verbed noun. The standard proof-text for treating the Body of Christ like just another restaurant chain is Proverbs 29:18a, "Where there is no vision, the people perish:" (KJV) Yeah, Solomon must have meant "vision statement" type of vision. Remember, part of being "purpose-driven" is mining 500 different translations for every occurrence of words like "purpose," "vision," "mission," etc. The translators of the NIV, though, understood that the Hebrew chazon means a vision in the sense of "revelation" (or, as the ESV translates it, "Prophetic vision"). But even the rest of the verse in the KJV should clue us in: "Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he."

What Would Jesus Do? - Nothing wrong with this question. Just remember, that it's LAW, not GOSPEL. Jesus came primarily to do something, not show us what he would do.

24 reader comments:

All Saints Episcopal Church said...

I kind of like incarnational ...

OK, how about "empower" (which has been so overused one can now simply refer to it as the "e-word," unless you mean "evangelism," which is NOT used in Episcopal circles because it is far too scary, so we also call that the "e-word.")

"The unchurched." Something about this sounds like it's a minority group descriptor ... "the differently abled" or "the hearing impaired."

Ted said...

Here's one Zachster: Organic. This word, in a church context, means "We do life together in the inner city and have no plans, no committees, no elders, no doctrine, no church discipline, and maybe no pastor, but lots of vibrant ministry just bubbles out of our faith community organically."

Raymond Nearhood II said...

Bible Believing - As in:

"What denomination are you?"

"Reformed Baptist."

"What's that?"

"It's closest to Presbyterian, but without the infant baptism. Calvinist, confessional, creeds, you know. You?"

"Oh, well, we're Bible believing."

Sometimes coupled with:

No creed but Christ!

And ditto to ASEC on the unchurched

Anastasia said...

The one that most frequently makes my skin crawl is "God showed up!"

Usage: "We had this weekend planned for these students, and wow, God SHOWED UP in a BIG way!"

I don't even have the energy to explain all the reasons why it's preposterous and wrong.

Raymond Nearhood II said...

Should I be entertained by this? 'Cause it sort of feels like I shouldn't be, but I am, sort of.

It's sort of relieving to see it all written out. Then I laugh, then I feel bad, then Anastasia replies with "God showed up" and I laugh again through grinding teeth, then I feel bad....

Mark said...

Just a couple off the top of my head, and a short story.

"Be About," as in, "Let us be about the work of the church this week."

"Post-Modern." I know it's a viable description of something, but honestly, I don't know what. I never learned where the dividing line was between post-olden and post-modern that might give this term some meaning for me.

I pretty much agree with the writer who spoke of the "un-churched." Another word I've heard for that people group - and oh, there's another one, by the way - is "pre-churched."

I actually kind of like "faith journey." It speaks to the process of sanctification for me.

During one of the times I saw Larry Norman in concert (R.I.P.), he went on a rant about how Christians have so separated themselves from the world that we've lost touch with nonbelievers. "We write Christian books put out by Christian publishing houses and record Christian records produced by Christian record companies and sell them both in Christian bookstores ... which is where all my unsaved friends go to buy stuff." (Voice dripping heavily with sarcasm by this point.)

And then he went on a rant about our witnessing techniques:

Believer: Hey, can I ask you something?

Heathen: Sure.

Believer: Are you saved?

Heathen: Yeah, once last summer my aunt pulled me out of the lake after I started drowning....

Believer: No, no, no. Have you been washed in the blood?

Heathen: Ewww! I hope not!

Believer (patting pockets, to himself): Can't seem to find my Four Spiritual Laws tract ... (to Heathen) Well, I just came to tell you the Good News!

Heathen: What's that?

Believer: You're going to HELL!

David Marvin said...

Felt Needs Aren't those what old school Sunday school teachers have when they run out of flannel graph materials?

ZSB said...

Dave, I'm proud of your pun.

Ted, you brought up another without even noticing: FAITH COMMUNITY. Ya know, because "church" is a word that squares use. Squares like Our Lord and the holy apostles.

Ray, if you should feel bad about laughing, then Paul should feel bad about coining the term "super-apostles."

All, keep 'em coming.

Raymond Nearhood II said...

Oh, I just thought of one, then I'm off.

Two-minute Testimony - Because how good your life is since you made the decision for Christ x number of years ago is a) the real message of the Gospel and b) must remain short to remain relevant to the lost soul with a short attention span. Just take a step out in faith and tell them about your life... quickly.

Was that two?

E. said...

"It's almost like we choose these buzzwords based on maximum grammatical awkwardness."

Exactly. Ugh.

Being in Christian Publishing, I run into these all the time. Some of my faves have already been mentioned: organic, incarnational, felt needs, community, do church, etc. One thing you're missing by having this typed out is the inflection; so many of these are used in a "whisper preaching" type of voice, which makes them all the more insufferable.

How about "spiritual mentoring?"

humanitasremedium said...


mike wittmer said...

This is funny! I always cringe a little every time someone prays that God would bless "those we come into contact with," which is just an overly long, tortured, spiritual way to say "meet."

ZSB said...

I heard another good one today: IT'S A GOD THING!

Raymond Nearhood II said...

Hey, everyone, it's time to brag on God*!

*I never heard this one until flipping from Church of Christ to Baptist. Every Baptist church I've been to, every one (until the church I'm a member of), had a time set aside to "brag on God."

E. said...

Oh, Mike's post reminded me about the cliches that show up primarily in prayers. How about:

"Bless this food to our bodies" - what does that MEAN, really?

Massive overuse of the word "just" in prayer: "Lord, we just want to ask you to just be with Joe in his pain, to just love him, and just to just lead him in this time."

Inserting the word "Father" before and after every sentence of a prayer.

JB said...

The fervor on this one has thankfully passed, but the Prayer of Jabez craze took Scripture out of context then commercialized it. Awesome. ("The Prayer of Jabez for Kids"....whaaaa?)

Jonathan said...

I am fed up with adding the word "post-" to everything (see Mark's comment above). I don't quite understand this need to describe one's self in apophatic terms. Seriously, how can you be so sure you are past something if you can't actually define where you are? My all time favorite example of this was at a panel discussion on the emerging church movement last October: one pastor actually described himself as post-post-emergent. Priceless.

JDO said...

It is bad in the buisiness world and even worse in the church: "THINK OUTSIDE THE BOX"

"You are so tied up with your narrow docrines and specific ideas about who God is and ow he works and what is right and wrong and proper interpretation of biblical would grow so much if you just THINK OUTSIDE THE BOX."

Me: No thanks, I like my box.

voxstefani said...

Hello Zach,

I remember you from Cornerstone. Good to see you in the blogosphere.

Fortunately for me, I haven't been much exposed to these particular crimes against the English language since I became Orthodox nearly a decade ago. (Of course, there is a particular brand of "Americanist Orthospeak" current in certain quarters of the North American Orthodox Church--notably among former Evangelicals--, but as this corrupts my worldview, I do my best to stay away from that too. But I digress.)

Anyway, of all the jarring expressions you document above, the more vexing is undoubtedly "Christ-follower." I first encountered it a couple of years ago in California (surprise! surprise!), and I could not believe my ears. What does that even mean? I felt a small part of my brain (and a congruous part of my common sense) collapse as a result.

Joe Martino said...

ZB: "What's wrong with Christian?"
Answer: Most people who claim it are jerks and bring a lot of baggage to the term that I don't want.

ZSB said...

But what about when you meet some jerks who bring baggage to the term "Christ-Follower?" Will you coin yet another term? And, when it comes to misrepresenting something (which is what jerky Christians are doing), why hadn't the name of Jesus itself acquired sufficient baggage to require replacement?

Adam D Jones said...

This is great!

Curt said...

How about "Passion". I can't count how many church, missionary, pastoral, etc. websites I've been to where this word is in constant use, especially in the Mission Statement. "We're passionate about being missional in how we do church." If you find your passion then you know where God would have you. What are you passionate about?

I'm feeling ill now!

Anonymous said...

How about "Christian Center" instead of "church"? Or "plugged in", as in "Join our fellowship of believers and get plugged in to a ministry!" I'm not an appliance, I don't need to be plugged in! ;-)

Let's not forget "worship that is fresh, dynamic and relevant", what does that even mean??