Living in Synonyms

If you’re going to get involved in this post-modern ministry stuff, you might as well accept that you’re gonna have to learn a new language. Don’t bother complaining… unless you’re reaching out to the same people you grew up with, it’ll be the same no matter where you go. You can’t help people unless you understand them. And you can’t understand them unless you can speak their language.

Of course, translating from Christianese to Post-modernish is like any other translation process… it’s not simply a matter of word substitution. There are shades and ranges of meaning, connotation, irony, poetry and inflection that can be caught, but not taught. And even if they were teachable, I wouldn’t be the one to teach it.

So instead I will grossly oversimplify the matter for you here, as an introduction, if you will. (Come to think of it, I may have done this before on this blog. But if so, it will be better this time around.)

It is true that Post-Modern culture makes it very difficult to broach certain subjects at all. Some words simply cannot be said in isolation… only in very thoughtful paragraphs, or in connection with narrative or art. Without such cushions, these words are choked by stigma, history, prejudice and pre-conception. That’s not what I’ll be talking about here. What I want to address with you now, are the subjects which are not difficult to communicate to a Post-Modern society, but which can become difficult very quickly if spoken in Christianese.

To that end, I would like to propose a brief Thesaurus for you; a Christianese-Post-Modernish dictionary. If I were really serious about this, of course it would be much longer. But I hope this can be helpful to you for now.



Some of these substitutions are handy as pure synonyms, because the institutional church has simply dragged the first word through the mud, and we need a replacement. Other substitutions are better because they actually communicate more effectively to a Post-Modern mindset. I’ll go through them to give you my thoughts about each one.

Truth-Reality: This is my favorite one, and it represents both of the above reasons that a replacement word is necessary for Post-Modern communication. In the first place, the word Truth has been wielded like a hammer by modernist ministers. And it’s only gotten worse as times have changed, and as Relativism has reared its head. It’s as if the louder we say the word “Truth” the more likely it is to sink in.

I prefer to use the word Reality, because no one can fully deny it. We may be able to spin vain philosophies regarding the viscosity of truth, and approach at them the same way as we would approach a math equation involving imaginary numbers (you know, the square root of -1.) But everyone is at least partially familiar with reality, and recognizes the concrete nature of it. You’d be surprised how often you can substitute the word Reality when you’re tempted to say Truth. Give it a try.

Sin-Rebellion: Here again, there’s nothing wrong with the word Sin. But it’s been so misused, usually in the context of legalism and misplaced judgment, that it carries far too much baggage. It is not necessarily a silver bullet to talk to a Post-Modern about Rebellion, but it is easier for most of them to relate to their real lives.

Savior-Messiah: On the left, we have a word that has been beaten to death in formulaic evangelism, and on the right, a word that alludes to Jesus’ Jewish culture and context, which is something that Post-Moderns find themselves drawn to. Rob Bell, in his Nooma videos, shows us the philosophical appeal to a cultural/contextual reading of the gospels, and the thrill of understanding what lies behind the words we’ve heard all our lives. It’s like colorizing a black-and-white photo, and has revived many a cold heart to renewed interest in the things of God.

Salvation-Restoration: Salvation has come to refer to the inclusion of a select group for a ticket to heaven, and the exclusion of those who don’t fit in so well. I know that’s not what it actually means, but still. Even in the best of cases, “Salvation” has become empty, whereas Restoration engages the listener’s sense that everything is awry, and must be restored or redeemed. Those with a bent toward social justice will understand this particularly well, and may be more likely to see the need for it in their own hearts.

Church-Body: “Church” has insititutional and corporate/commercial overtones. In Post-Modern eyes, it is often a legal entity that competes with other such legal entities for money, publicity and notoriety. A Body or Community, however, is an organism that functions inter-depentently, relying on one another’s strengths, and bearing each other’s burdens.

Bible-Scriptures: This one I’m not dogmatic about. But Rob Bell again leads the way by choosing the less stigmatized of the two words… the latter.

Christian-Christ-follower: I’ve written about this in the past, and I have to admit that, from an objective, etymological perspective, the former word is better. It implies being “in Christ” rather than simply following him. But it has fallen so far in our process of cultural segmentation that its virtue is all but lost. I do not recommend abandoning the word “Christian” whatsoever. But one must seriously consider “Christ-follower” when broaching the topic in the company of skeptics.

Commandment-Mandate: This one just came to me yesterday, and I stand by this substitution only for the sake of its emotional impact. The first word sounds oppressive and confining, but the second sounds like a challenge. Like we’re being offered an opportunity, charged with a mission and an objective. I can’t back this up with a dictionary, but I’m going to try to make this switch as often as possible, to see how it bounces.

Please feel free to critique my list, or my explanations. But one thing I’d definitely like to see in the comments is more ideas for words substitutions. So have at it!


5 thoughts on “Living in Synonyms

  1. <>seek –<> meditate<>confess –<> acknowledge<>repent –<> reform (actually a more accurate translation of the Messiah’s teaching)<>prayer –<> petition<>surrender –<> release<>heart –<> consciousness<>God (specifically in regard to creation activity) –<> Source<>Creation –<> Existence (therefore, God of Creation would be phrased Source of Existence)

  2. So…One must meditate on the Source of all existence.One must acknowledge their rebellion against reality.One must make petition and release their consciousness to the Messiah in order to achieve restoration.One may then seek further enlightenment by consulting the mentor of their local Christ-following community regarding the mandates in the Scriptures.

  3. Wow… very insightful.In my mind, these synonyms represent a deeper level of post-modernism; those who have fully bought into the philosophical constructs of the movement.Caution is needed, though, to make sure that, in the process of trying to communicate more effectively, we are not compromising the message itself. I sense that is not your intention, and in some of these synonyms the message is bolstered rather than weakened. But others (as in heart vs. consciousness) there is a risk of the slippery slope.Excellent thoughts!

  4. Do you think this could all be remeded if christia… I mean Christ followers were more genuine and actually opened the box and tried out what was inside before trying to sell it to everyone else? Look at the Bi.. Scriptures. They are huge. BTW, I wonder if God could have given us more but he decided to give us just enough to be able to carry around comfortably. But one thing the breadth of the scriptures show us is that our faith can be expressed, when done so by someone who is deeply experiencing it, in so many ways. Paul probably repeats the gospel message dozens of times in the epistles but he does so using many different synonyms, antonyms, adjectives, verbs, pronouns, and antecedents (I don’t know what that is but he probably used a few). I don’t think the actual words to John 3:16 will ever wear out, simply because the guy who first made that statement was sincere and really appreciated what he was saying. I think there is value in the message you are saying and I have found myself using words like reality when talking about truth. I get a whole lot out of the Message and the Living Bible. However, even the revised words you are putting out can get old pretty quickly as well. It’s better to teach a believer to fish than spoon feed him the words he needs to be saying. I am not saying that is your intention but I think it is something we need to guard against. It’s how we got in this mess you speak of in the first place.

  5. My two cents: understand what the original author intended to communicate in selecting particular words to convey his message, then choose the words in your own language (including sub/co-cultural vernacular) that best convey that same message. Of course, doing so presumes an ability to interact what the original author <>actually said<>… in his <>own<> language. That is the elephant in the room of this post. Otherwise, very thought provoking and helpful! :)

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