Saturday, March 13, 2010

Can the word ‘Christian’ be saved?

In my last post I talked about how God is into redeeming rather than destroying. Whether it’s a life or a situation, He is a master at weaving the black threads of life into a larger tapestry of grace and goodness.

But what about the word ‘Christian’—is that something we should work to reclaim? The word itself has become so overused and abused that it hardly holds any meaning whatsoever anymore. “Christian” is supposed to mean ‘follower of Christ,’ but it’s become like the word ‘love’ or ‘awesome’—used in so many different ways that it doesn’t really mean anything anymore. In fact, I think that when most non-Christians think of that word, they think of Bad Christians.

We’ve even turned it into an adjective. These days we have our Christian books, Christian movies, Christian music, Christian politics, Christian clothing, even Christian videogames. Do we mean to say that Pilgrim’s Progress believes in Jesus as its own personal Lord and Savior? Does The Blind Side need to be baptized?

On the other hand, I don’t have any good alternatives. When describing individuals or small groups, I’ve taken to using ‘followers of Jesus’ or ‘believers’. But when talking about the church universal, or the very faith itself, it’s simply easier just to say ‘Christianity’. There simply aren’t any alternative single-words out there to describe it.

What is one to do? When I say ‘Christian’ or ‘Christianity’ I certainly don’t mean ‘Republican’, ‘homophobic’, ‘jingoistic’, ‘narrow-minded’, ‘uncompassionate’, and ‘ignorant'. Yet I submit to you that these descriptors—all of them—are exactly what non-Christians immediately think of when they hear the word.

The only solution I’ve come up with is to use those words as little as possible. After all, I get tired of having to explain what I don’t mean when I say ‘Christianity’ over and over again.

I dunno, it’s probably not worth trying to save. It’s become so damaged and diluted that it may be beyond repair. And, as both Dave Burchett and Tim Timmons say, I don’t think Jesus would care much about spending time on this. I really don’t think Jesus cares what word we use.

But I think the idea deserves redeeming.

The true idea of the word ‘Christian’ reveals itself in organizations both large and small. One of my favorite big ones is Samaritan’s Purse. Run by the son of Billy Graham, Samaritan’s Purse has provided physical relief in disaster and poverty zones across the entire world for more than 35 years, including being one of the first groups to get into Haiti after the earthquake (actually they've been in Haiti for years, and are still there now long after the media has left), promptly providing thousands of shelters and hundreds of thousands of gallons of clean drinking water. They also run Operation Christmas Child, in which everyday people like you and me have filled almost 100 million shoeboxes with toys, school supplies, and toiletries which are given to children in 100 countries each Christmastime who would otherwise get nothing.

Another terrific big organization, World Vision, has also relied on ordinary people to help save the lives of over 100 million children in danger of dying to starvation and disease. Both of these ministries receive the highest marks in terms of effectiveness and accountability by charity watchdog services.

... and AfterThen there’s the small ones. I’ve been blessed to build 3 homes outside Tijuana, Mexico as part of a team led by my good friend Dan Kissell. Once a year he goes down as part of a charity to rebuild what are essentially shantytowns for displaced Mexicans. Over the years, I’ve seen a place that was just a smidge above a hovel of cardboard boxes slowly transform into a community, and seen hardworking families receive a measure of dignity to their lives as they receive, freely, a place to live and raise their children. All in the name of Jesus, no strings attached.

I mentioned before the lady at my church who runs a clothing ministry for the homeless in Orange County, CA. In 2006 she retired from her career as an accountant to devote herself to it full-time. She gives every single weekend of her year to be out distributing clothing, self-esteem, and the knowledge that people care to the ‘invisibles’ in our community. My wife and I have volunteered a few measly hours on several weekends to help her (and her lovely right-hand woman who is always prepared to greet you with a hug and the offer to pray for you if you want) and let me tell you, she is devoted to it!

These organizations, and the hundreds of thousands of others like it in the USA alone, are out there faithfully doing their work saving lives and bringing hope to the world, yet it’s always going to be the stupid remarks we make that get most of the press. It’s just the way the world works, folks. James 3 is even truer today than it was when it was written. Nowadays, with 24-hour news and a global society, a small spark from the tongue doesn’t just start a forest fire, it starts a global conflagration.

As I’ve said before, we all know that there are many, many followers of Jesus like the ones I mentioned above who are loving others and doing their best to follow His example. There are many who do it excellently and consistently, and there are many more who (like me) are striving to become better at it. Some days we do a good job, other days we don’t. But the heart is in the right place.

So is it worth taking the time and the effort to explain all this every time we talk to someone who brings up the old “Oh man, you Christians are all narrow-minded bigots” chestnut? I don’t think so.

The only way you or I will ever be able to change the idea that runs through people’s heads upon hearing that word is to actually go out and be like Jesus. No debate, no argument will ever do it. We all need to get our butts off the pew more often, get out into the world a bit more, and do something to change the world. Let's love our neighbors more. Our spiritual neighbors as well as our actual neighbors. Only then will people SEE what ‘Christians’ are about.

I also challenge you to stop using the word ‘Christian’ as much as possible. Stop talking about your favorite ‘Christian band’ or ‘Christian movie’ and just say ‘movie’ instead. It’s harder than you think!

‘Christian’ is tired and it needs a rest. It’s probably impossible to never use it, and I’m sure I will keep using it from time to time here in the blog, but I make a conscious effort to do so only when I can’t think of any other way to say something. And who knows, maybe in a hundred years, after it’s good and rested, maybe then it’ll mean something positive once again.

I'm curious what your thoughts on the subject are. Am I right on the money or way off base here? Please leave a comment telling me what you think!

Coming up next: Resurrection is back on!

Truth poorly defended loses not its truthfulness;
likewise Falsehood aptly defended loses not it's falsity.


  1. I'm not sure why we keep trying to sell the terms "Christian" and "Christianity" to people. I tend to get caught in that trap as well. I think it's time for us to shelve them both.

    Without knowing Christ there is no way to grasp the true definition of "Christian" and/or "Christianity". It's no wonder people are confused when they try the reverse - defining Christ through their experience of "Christians" and "Christianity".

    As disciples we need to allow Christ to be our focus. Once that happens, then the definitions will take care of themselves.

  2. I think the actual word "Christ" means "Anointed". And I also interpret, when Jesus said, "many will come in my name and say I am the Christ", he was talking about Christianization of everything.
    To me, I don't need to go tell ANYONE "I'm Christian." For one, they immediatly look for all your flaws and mistakes, and for two, if you can become an effective witness, it will be to lead people to Jesus, not for you to exalt yourself as a "Christian", aka "great person" or holier-than-thou.

    I wanna be the best ME there is. :)
    And glorify God - through JESUS - in the process.

  3. Good thoughts Jeremy. The words we should be stressing are Jesus and grace and forgiveness.

  4. Actually, SB, I think you're right; people need to see Jesus IN us; it won't do us any good to "wear Christianity on our sleeves" if we don't back it up by living for Christ. In fact, Jesus said that people will know that we are His by our love for one another. What better way than to "go into all the world" sharing that love, His love, with others? And as for the term "Christianity" getting a bad conotation, we should also remember that the Bible says that the disciples of the Lord were first called Christians in Antioch; that was a negative conotation tacked onto the disciples by the world, but the disciples took it as an honor. And they were still out in the world sharing the love of Christ, regardless; their actions said more than any label could say. I was just thinking about Paul, too -- the Jews were going around everywhere spreading lies about him, but his godly actions outweighed the "label" that they placed on him. So, in short, I totally agree with you. Excellent thoughts! And once again, thanks for sharing.