“Christian” – a tired word. May it rest in peace.

(in light of some conversations I’ve been having lately, here are some formative, not definitive, thoughts, about the words we use and how they affect our testimony)

When you talk to people and the subject of spirituality or faith comes up, I’m finding it increasingly difficult to use the word Christian in any meaningful way.  Here’s why:

Words, in order to have meaning, need to have boundaries.  The noun Hat can mean a lot of things –  ranging from a baseball hat, to a helmet for football or motorcycle riding, to a lovely hat for some sort of formal event, to an Amish head covering.  But we all know that it isn’t referring to a bottle, or a piece of cake, or a car.  The limits of words make conversation and understanding possible, and though words can have varieties of meanings, the boundaries need to “reasonable” or else the possibility of some real misunderstandings arise exponentially.

This brings me to the word I’m putting on trial:  Christian.  Here’s why:

“I’m not a Christian – I’m a democrat”, implying that Christian and a view of the world that favors higher taxes and bigger government are inherently, de-facto, incompatible.

“Yes.  I’m a Christian.  I was baptized when I was 8 months old.”

“Yes.  I’m a Christian.  I grew up in the church.” 

“Yes.  I’m a Christian.  I prayed the sinners prayer and went forward in church when I was nine” 

“No I don’t want to be a Christian.  Have you heard of the crusades?  Slavery?  The Christians were at the root of all that suffering.” 

“I’ll never be a Christian.  Just look at what Christian Europe did to our (African) continent.” 

You could go back through these comments and try to build a definition of the word Christian based on the answers, and what you’d end up with are six different definitions, but that’s only because I’ve shared six stories with you. I could share thirty, and then you’d have thirty definitions, each one diminishing the meaning of the word rather than clarifying.  The result?  The word has come to mean so many different things that it essential means nothing.

What’s a Christian to do? 

Continuing to use the word in the same way we talk about baseball and perfume, (assuming that everyone who’s listening knows what we mean by it) isn’t wise because we’re identifying ourselves with a word that, in the end, likely misrepresents us to the people who are listening.

If we’re not going to keep using it, there are only two options left: First, we can try to recover the word, offering a fresh definition.  I’ve been a fan of this strategy for a long time, believing that to surrender the meaning of the word to all its false detractors is sort of like raising a white flag and quitting the fight.  Isn’t it better to let everyone in the world know what the word really means by living out its true meaning for everyone to see?

Well, actually, no.  It’s not better at all.  That’s what I’ve come to believe at least.  I’m tired of fighting this battle and saying, “don’t confuse MY Christianity with that yucky stuff over there.  I’m not like that. I’m not like them” because these conversations have led to perhaps the worst definition of “Christian”-   “Christians fight with each other all the time!”  It’s a true statement, and ironic, since the one thing for which Jesus explicitly prayed is that Christ followers would be known by their unity. Instead, we’re known by our capacity to point out, more than any other religion in my opinion, how so many groups wearing the same word  Christian really aren’t – and are worse than us.

“Over here.  We have the real stuff!  We’re the real definition of Christian”  we shout, loud enough so that people already not interested in Jesus are now less interested than ever.

Nope.  I’m finished with that game, because the person not talked about very much in all this shouting is Jesus himself, which is ironic, because in the end, what we’re supposed to be doing is inviting people to follow Jesus.  The name calling, doctrinal fighting, and presumptive claiming of moral high is a game that’s worn me down.  But when all the shouting, and divisions, and pleas for institutional loyalty have died down, what I love is that Jesus is still here in the room with me.

“I’ve been waiting for you man.  Where have you been?”

“O you know.  Out and about, promoting your faith.” I know I look tired, and it’s a little embarrassing because he seems so calm, so centered, almost unconcerned that I’ve been running myself ragged for him.

“I wish you wouldn’t do that” he says, sipping his coffee.  “You’re confusing people.  Don’t promote ‘my faith’.  Why don’t you try just telling people about me?  People are tired.  They’re dealing with shame and failure.  They’re living in the midst of kingdoms that are enslaving them.  I want to bless them, help them, heal them, invite them to rest.  They don’t need religion. They need me.”

“I thought I was telling them about you.”  I say, defensive.  Jesus reminds me that telling people to “go to church” or “become Christians” are phrases so loaded with toxic junk that they do more harm than good.

“I think that’s why Paul said that he was determined to know nothing more than Christ crucified.  It might even be what Bonhoeffer meant when we referred to religionless Christianity.  But even those words are too loaded.  Just love people like I do.  And tell people about me.  Good things will happen.” 

It’s advent.  “Messiah” is playing on my computer, reminding me that the whole arc of history is, in the end, not about Christianity at all.  It’s about one person who changes everything, ultimately saturating the universe with glory and beauty, bringing hope and healing to all.  I pray that my eyes, this advent, will be looking for him all the time, talking about him freely, and giving him the freedom to do what he does best through the likes of me; love, serve, bless, and impart hope.

Yes.  I’m burying the word Christian… if it rises from the dead, so be it.  But may it never rise unless it represents the pure unadulterated glory of the risen Christ.  Amen?

These are my thoughts… still forming.  I welcome yours!

9 thoughts on ““Christian” – a tired word. May it rest in peace.

  1. Grand post, not many other pastors would broach this subject. Couldn’t agree more. I generally don’t use any term with my friends. Sometimes I state “believer”, if the context requires clarification during dialogue. However, “believer” can also add a divide. Noticed a majority of my friends, with a bad taste in their mouth often state … “I’m not religious”. Hear this often, in different social circles.

  2. Dear Richard, I love where you are coming from and where I believe you are headed, but there is something unsettling about your post. I am not sure you can bury a word and I am certainly not ready to do away with the thousand-years-old tradition represented by such word. Maybe the trap for contemporary Christians has been to attempt to claim ‘one true meaning’ to the word Christian when what we are seeking, in the Rabbi’s fashion, is the ‘unfolding’ of a word in the world rather than a crystalized definition of a term we believe to be ‘essential’?
    To imply that Jesus has nothing to do with Christianity is to try to isolate ‘Jesus’ back into a ‘pure’ state that has never existed–a platonic endeavor, if you may. “The word became flesh,” and the flesh is messy, and engaged in the political life of the members of any society that try to follow Jesus.
    Whatever ‘Christianity’ has become today is the unintended product of our purposeful action. ‘Christianity’ as you well point out, represents what Christians are doing today, which may be disappointing. The word is reproduced by our acting in the world; therefore, the ‘word’ as a word, is unavoidable. Burying it would be to ‘make as if’ it does not exist. But the word is not going anywhere. We must live with it, and take it as our responsibility to enact it in the best way possible. To enact it in community, as part of a tradition, with a heightened awareness of the responsibility we hold when we act Christianity in the world.
    Just a few thoughts. Blessings to you!

  3. I’ve heard that the term was coined in the first century and it meant ‘Christ-one’ as in a description of the community, being “one in Christ”. Now there are over 33,000+ denominations?

  4. i agree with everything you just said. thank you for letting me im not alone. but. what do you say when someone asks you “what denomination of faith are you?” in a quick, and simple manner? how do you rephrase everything in this article into a sentence? other than “i don’t like labels on my faith” or “im not exactly what you’d call a ‘christian’, but i love people like Jesus does”? i mean, i know it sounds like i just answered my own question, but like, i mean this question to be something to say when you want to tell them who you really are, not using the word ‘christian’, and still tell them that you love Jesus?

    okay, i know that’s really really specific, and you really don’t have to answer this, but i guess i just expected something covering this in the article. anyways, God Bless you, thank you, again.

  5. The religious part of me which is glaringly obvious at some times (and elusively small at other times depending on my surroundings) reacts in interesting ways to this burial. I do like the burial imagery as God is in the wonderful business of resurrection. I admit a certain familiarity or comfort with the term, but as I ponder it… I think I prefer the terms Jesus used. Disciple. Follower. Add “of Jesus” to each of these and freedom to explore new defining horizons seems refreshingly vast. I like the thought Richard. And my initial hesitation reveals an element within that makes the march to the grave site timely 🙂 Thanks for the thought. Blessings, Hans Date: Mon, 2 Dec 2013 19:23:02 +0000 To: hans_oines@hotmail.com

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