Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Teaching the Christian Language System vs. Christianese

In Godly Play circles, we speak a lot about teaching children the classical, Christian language system. Indeed Jerome Berryman refers to "speaking Christian" in his book, The Spiritual Guidance of Children, as learning a second language. 

For many, the idea of teaching children a religious language is offensive. It certainly was for me. I was raised in the U.S. where the evangelical church had developed its own subculture language in the 80's and 90's, to the point where people raised outside of these circles had no longer had any idea what the church people were talking about when they came into contact with them. When I became immersed in a secular society, I had to unlearn this "Christianese" in order to be able to communicate things about my faith in a way that people could actually begin to understand. (To read more about "Christianese", see this informative article by Intervarsity Evangelism.)

So when I started hearing about a Christian language system as a part of Godly Play, I was skeptical. So were some of my colleagues who were coming from a missional viewpoint. They wanted to know why -  if we were attempting to communicate things about our faith in a way that unchurched people could relate to - we would then be doing exactly the opposite with children.

Godly Play uses the medium of play in order to develop the linguistic skills needed
to express faith.

For a long time, I stumbled with that question. But now I think I can better explain the difference between the subculture "Christianese" and the language system that is taught in Godly Play. Berryman writes that language itself is like a gateway. When we can name things, it empowers us as human beings. Children and adults have spiritual experiences and we need to be able to name them. Godly Play teaches children how to give a name to and describe these abstract religious experiences, concepts, and truths through play and creativity. We empower children to do much of the naming themselves, rather than prescribing specific names for specific things.

Yes, in Godly Play we do teach names for specific historical objects, i.e. the ark of the covenant, or people. But we don't, for instance, give a specific interpretation for parables, which can mean a myriad of different things to different people. And we don't define specific spiritual experiences with "churchy" terms. Instead, we allow the children to name them by combining vocabulary from their everyday experiences with the vocabulary from Scripture. 

Making art as a means of  expressing spiritual thoughts and reflecting on existential boundaries.

"Christianese", on the other hand, often evolves out of a desire to fit in. Many times, the terms are coined from a certain leader or pastor, which eventually filter their way down to the children in the congregation. It also results from not knowing any people outside of the church, which is a definite problem if we are bringing children up to be salt and light in the world.

"Christianese" can also be divisive by fostering an "us vs. them" mentality, due to the fact that it highlights the differences between people inside and outside of the church. But the "classical, Christian language system" seeks to name and express the ways in which God interacts with us. 

Teaching a child to speak "Christian" is a gift that will serve to guide her or him for the whole journey of life, whereas "Christianese" will hinder.

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