Do You Code-Switch Your Language to Speak Christianese?

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Happy Birthday or Feliz Cumpleaños?

Jeff and I are relaxing at a hotel swimming pool in Georgia. We just arrived after finishing a nearby Christian conference for the day.

It’s a hot afternoon, but the only other people around the pool are a few families preparing for a birthday party.

Not intentionally, we casually overhear their conversation. Yet we understand none of it.

They’re all speaking in Spanish. My high school Spanish + my adult duolingo lessons + trying to speak Spanish when I was in Central America is no match for their speed and vocabulary in their native tongue.

They’re now ready to officially begin their party. They gather the birthday girl Sophia, they uncover her birthday cake, and they light the candles.

And then they launch into the song: Happy Birthday to You, Happy Birthday to You, Happy Birthday Sophia,….

But the song is in all English, no Spanish. Beginning to end.

Why the switch to English just for the song?

Code-Switching to Christianese

Code-switching is a term to describe alternating back and forth between two languages or dialects. It comes naturally to people who are bilingual. They can speak one language in one situation, and speak another language in a different situation.

While I can’t code-switch between languages like English and Spanish, there is a language I can easily switch to: Christianese.

If you’ve been part of the Christian world for long, you’ll know the vocabulary, too:

  • Such a sweet time of fellowship.
  • God led me to call you.
  • I heard a word from the Lord last night.
  • Do you have your quiet time in the morning?
  • Let’s have a word of prayer.
  • Lord willing, I’ll be able to go.
  • We love doing life together.
  • Just put it in God’s hands.
  • Don’t ruin your witness.

Nothing is wrong with these phrases. And if you’re a fellow believer who grew up in the culture, we could easily communicate in whole paragraphs using just this language.

Watch this funny video, “Shoot Christians Say,” to hear what it sounds like.

Video - Shoot Christians Say

For some people, hearing these phrases in Christianese brings comfort. It feels like home. It’s a native tongue they best understand.

To others, Christianese sounds as foreign to them as the Spanish words sounded to me at the pool party. They can’t interpret the meaning of the message.

And yet to another group of people, Christianese is more than different; it’s offensive. Perhaps they believe the words aren’t true or are being used incorrectly or insincerely. Perhaps they view Christianese itself as exclusionary. Perhaps they’ve been hurt by the Christian culture and hearing its vocabulary triggers more pain.

A Common Language

What language do we need to speak when we’re surrounded by such a diversity of listeners?

Love language.

The best language is one in which we communicate to the person in front of us that they are loved, seen, and heard.

Sometimes that means we might actually use words like “blessed” and “testimony” and “repentant.”

But other times, it means intentionally avoiding those words, instead using words that don’t require insider knowledge or that don’t carry any baggage. If it doesn’t sound like love, it doesn’t sound like God anyway.

Why did the Spanish-speaking family at the pool switch to English to sing the Happy Birthday song? I’ll never know. Maybe it’s what the birthday girl Sophia wanted. Maybe it’s what was most familiar. Maybe they just wanted to, and didn’t even think about it.

Sophia seemed happy about it, whatever the reason.

May we achieve the same result on our listeners.

Whichever language we use, as much as we’re able, let’s intentionally use words best interpreted as love to the listener’s ear.

Love is indeed a universal language.

Do you code-switch to Christianese?

Do you speak more than one language? When do you code-switch? Share your thoughts in the comments.

13 thoughts on “Do You Code-Switch Your Language to Speak Christianese?

  1. Lynn

    Very thought provoking. Let’s choose our words to show love, not to just pacify a situation (which, I think, Christenese can sound like). Using the person’s language back to them, instead of our own “phrases” makes them feel valued, heard, and respected.

  2. Martha J Orlando

    That video was hilarious! No, I’m not comfortable around those who speak in Christianese, Lisa, because it’s always sounded artificial and limiting in a strange kind of way. I wasn’t brought up in an overtly Christian household, and didn’t commit myself to Jesus until I was in my thirties. That probably explains a lot! But I don’t put people down or think less of them if they use these types of phrases.

  3. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser

    The Christianese I tend to speak
    was learned in places rough and bloody;
    it really is not for the meek,
    nor the churchy fuddy-duddy.
    Language is as language does,
    and I did it, worse than most.
    I got Christ in heart because
    I know without Him I’d be toast,
    and so I talk for folks like me,
    brawlers, thugs, skirt-chasers, too,
    because they need a chance to see
    a God who hung with “dudes like you”,
    and Who’ll never be impressed
    with what world calls The Sunday Best.

  4. Paula Short

    Lisa, this is a really interesting article. Humm, I never thought about that before. That was a hilarious video. I’ve heard many of those terms, and was not offended by them. I don’t recall saying any of them though. I guess what it boils down to is trying to see through Jesus’ eyes and speak with love. Though sometimes it may be difficult I think we should try our best.

  5. Jean Wise

    That video is hysterical and so true. We slip into this language and never realize it don’t we? I find sometimes I use Christianese because I don’t know what else to say or how to express it. Take the easy way out.

  6. Jeanne Takenaka

    Lisa, this is such a thought-provoking post. I try not to speak in Christianese, especially with people who don’t yet know the Lord, but I’m certain it slips out.

    I loved your final encouragement: “Whichever language we use, as much as we’re able, let’s intentionally use words best interpreted as love to the listener’s ear.”

    May we truly speak love, in whichever language we’re speaking.

  7. Michele Morin

    I am most aware of this when I write. Some topics are so specific to Christianity that I can’t avoid using insider lingo, but I try to read my work with a particular reader in mind.
    BTW, I recently subbed as a Spanish teacher and my brain was exhausted by the end of the day!

  8. Amy Johnson

    Yes, I think I’m definitely guilty of switching from Christianese to American depending on who I’m talking to, mostly because I don’t think they would understand what I’m talking about if I didn’t

  9. Lois Flowers

    Such an interesting observation about the birthday party. I wish I spoke another language (such as Spanish) and I try to keep my Christianese to a minimum! It doesn’t really offend me, but it does make me roll my eyes at times. I love your suggestion to consider our audience and speak to them in a way that makes them feel loved and understood.

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