By Joshua Cody
I’ve been bombarded by shifts in vocabulary lately. In an accelerating society, it seems like Christian jargon is the one thing evolving faster than technology.
Of course, some remain in the Dark Ages and still call themselves Christians, use war rhetoric, preach sermons, and sing hymns. Others, however, have adopted a new language that’s more emergent, more seeker-friendly, or more radical. They are followers of Christ who speak love, give talks, and sing songs. I’m not condemning any of these terms; I even think they are fundamentally good, but as linguistically progressive Christians often shy away from words like Christian, spiritual gifts, or even Holy Spirit, there’s a group left precariously in the middle.
Last night, I walked along Venice Beach, enjoying the sunset, talking with individuals experiencing homelessness, and learning from world travelers. The night was perfect — the sun setting behind palms and the moon starting to shine as the sky darkened. The company was even better. Laughter and joy were all around as we all shared our food and talents together. I was with a few friends from church, and our company asked a couple of us if we were “Christians.” Insert silence and awkward sounds. The next question was if we were part of a church. Remove silence, insert lots of “kind of” or “not really.” Then my friends turned to me, “How would you answer that, Josh?”
I, too, scrambled in my brain for a moment. I became part of that group left precariously in the middle. You see, I’ve been in the process of struggling with this new vocabulary and feeling strange abandoning terms like Christian and church. Before I answered the question, I had the advantage of time to compose my thoughts and know my position, and I semi-reluctantly replied, “Yes.” Time slowed as we waited to see how those around us would respond. The next comment was heartbreaking. Our new friend, Bubbles the ukulele player, between drags of his freshly rolled joint, told us, “You guys shouldn’t be ashamed to be Christians.”
In my mind, I was immediately taken to a meeting of Christians Anonymous, and I was standing. “Hi, my name is Josh, and I am ashamed of the gospel.”
Walking away from the beach last night, I realized that my language is far less important than I imagined it to be. In that moment, I projected all my hurts and scars from the church onto Bubbles, Ky, and even Delilah the cat. I thought, “Christians have hurt me, so I don’t want to be called by their same name.” Interestingly, as we talked by the beach, my new friends didn’t care what I said I was, they cared about who I really am and how I lived. It wasn’t about my vocabulary, it was about my life.
I agree, it’s foolishness to assume that our vocabulary today should match our vocabulary a hundred years ago. Language should be precise so we can effectively communicate the heart of God and the message of Christ. There are words that need to go, I wouldn’t deny that. And perhaps I’m just a little behind the curve on what words have strong negative connotations. But I think there are problems in the complete vocabulary overhaul that we sometimes seek.
The vocabulary-centric gospel is one of public relations, not intimate relationships. If I only intend to spend a few minutes of my life with someone, every word’s importance increases exponentially. If I intend to share my life with someone, however, my words diminish and my life speaks. Living your faith out in your community can never be replaced by speaking your faith with effective communication.
Language has the interesting property of being symbolic. If we ever say, “I am [blank],” then we constantly define what it means to be blank. If you say you are a Christian, then those around you reshape their idea of a Christian based on your life. If you say you are a believer, then again, those around you reshape their idea of a believer based on your life. As we walk into the world, we are the ideas that our symbolic language represents. Christianity is constantly defined and re-defined based on our lives.
Above all, “…and be always prepared to give an answer to everyone that asks you to give an account of the hope that is inside of you.” Whether we call ourselves a Christian, a follower of Christ, or a nonreligious revolutionary of the true teacher is irrelevant. What is relevant is that the way we live our lives makes others ask, “Why?” and that we can then give an answer to them — that Christ is the hope in us.
Joshua is a young, married twenty-something who believes the gospel should be communicated with clarity and passion, through actions before words. He writes at Church Marketing Sucks and on his Twitter page, and he currently resides in beautiful Athens, GA.