I had a series a while back about the Christian Cliches that we should drop from our lexicon, and since then I’ve had people ask what they should be saying instead. So here’s a list of handy phrases to help bring followers of Jesus into a post-Christendom, 21st-century world.
- “I’m sorry.” — There’s plenty of hurt in the world related to Christianity, and even though we may not personally be responsible for that damage, it’s amazing how far an apology will go. Even if we’re only acknowledging the hurt and disenfranchisement, we should show some regret that something of which we are a part has contributed to someone’s suffering.
- “How can I help?” — Sometimes we have a bad habit of diagnosing problems and coming up with the solution without actually sitting down and talking with the folks we’re supposedly helping. Though well intended, this can come off as arrogant, and can also end up being a waste of time and resources. Yes, it’s more vulnerable to ask an open-ended question like “How can I help?’ since the answer might require much more of us than we planned on. But that’s the risk of doing real servant work.
- “I don’t know.” — I’ve listed this one before, but it bears repeating. Some of us have been raised with the misapprehension that we always have to have an answer to every question having to do with our faith. But better than pat, rehearsed (or worse, pulled-out-of-our-asses-on-the-fly) answers is the humility of admitting we have no idea sometimes.
- “I could be wrong.” — This goes along with #3, as one of the most damaging things in any faith tradition — or in any cultural system, for that matter — is the idolatry of certainty. When we hold so fast to an idea that the people involved take second chair to our certainty, we’ve created a space where pain and alienation are sown, rather than compassion and reconciliation.
- “What do you think?” — A third in this theme of what Tony Jones calls “epistemic humility,” when it comes to scripture at least, though asking people their thoughts on the Christian faith, the Bible or anything else is a healthy practice for all involved. In fact, I learn more about my faith sometimes from non-Christians than I do from those who are so close to it (like me) that they become blind to the problems, right in front of us. Any good Christian should keep some non-Christian friends on retainer to help keep them in check and lend them some necessary perspective from time to time.
- “I love you.” — We have the best of intentions when telling others about God or Jesus, but unless this is already a central theme in your life, talking about how God loves you can come off as strangely abstract and a little bit crazy. Rather than speaking for God, it’s best if we take the risk and simply speak for ourselves. It sounds nice to say “God loves you,” but it’s a real and important risk to say “I love you.”
- “Tell me more…” — Showing genuine interest in the lives and stories of others is the foundation of Christ-like family. So often we sit right next to people — be it at church, work, school or elsewhere — hose stories we know little or nothing about. Whereas in the past, Christendom’s aim was mainly assimilation, a post-Christendom world requires us to be willing to be changed as much as we seek to affect change in our relationships with one another. It’s no longer about eradicating differences, but rather, it’s about cultivating a love that is stronger than those differences.
- “That just sucks.” — This goes along with the Christian compulsion to try and fix everything. But if I’ve learned anything from thirteen years of marriage, it’s that solutions don’t always go as far as empathy.
- “Let’s give it a try.” — Along with presiding over decades of prolific growth (both numerically and institutionally) many Christians began to believe that they were primarily stewards and guardians of the institution rather than preparers of the way for a divinely-inspired kingdom on earth. It’s in the nature of institutions to resist change, however, whereas preparation is all about making room and clearing space in anticipation of something new. As Paul says, our faith requires a childlike “What’s next?” kind of openness, rather than leaning so heavily on the spirit-killing mantra of “But we’ve always done it this way.”
- Say nothing at all — Filling awkward silences with chatter is endemic in our entire western culture, but Christians are particularly guilty of whipping out the cliches when there’s dead air. Sometimes the best prescription is simply to be present, or maybe to listen. Just because we’re Christians doesn’t mean we have been commissioned with fixing everything. We could start by adding intentional silence more often into our own spiritual practices, just to get used to how it feels.
Christian Piatt is a Sojourners Featured Writer and an author, editor, speaker, musician, and spoken word artist. He is director of church growth and development at First Christian Church in Portland, Ore. Christian is the creator and editor of Banned Questions About The Bible and Banned Questions About Jesus. His new memoir on faith, family and parenting is called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.