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Ten antidotes to clichés

17 August 2012

Here are some positive actions that Christians can take to counteract the damaging effects of clichés, says Christian Piatt

THIS is the final in a three-part series on the over-used and often insensitively employed phrases that plague the Christian lexicon. I am offering a list of things to do as an alternative to firing off phrases that may mean little to the recipient - or, worse, may cause unintended harm.

1. "Listen more; talk less."  Yes, there were times in the Gospels when Jesus sermonised; but most of the time he said much less than people expected. He listened first, and, when responding to problems or questions, he often left room in his answer for the listeners to wrestle with what was said, and to arrive at their own understanding.

Christians do not like to give up such control, though. We want to know that the person understands what we want them to understand. But, if we are ever to get past the widely held perception that we are tone-deaf talking heads, we have to be quiet, and pay attention more.

2. "Stop trying to fix everything." Christians hate loose ends. We want to end every conversation with everyone smiling and assured that everything will be fine. But that is not always reality, and, sometimes, what people need is to grieve, wrestle, or reflect rather than feel better and move on. Being a Christian is not about having all the answers at the ready, despite what some evangelism training will tell you. People may even ask for answers, but what we are all looking for, at a deeper level than our search for those answers, is peace. Sometimes that takes time.

3. "See yourself in the 'Other'." Somewhere along the way, Christian outreach became more about personal conversion than about empathy and compassion. One of the biggest turn-offs I hear about Christians is that people see us as trying to make everyone become like us. But Jesus was moved, affected, and - yes - changed by the people he encountered.And, lest we forget, the greatest commandment was not to convert people to Christianity: it was to love others with all you have, and with all you are. Part of loving others is to understand what they want or need, not just to give them what you think they want or need.

4. "Pray." This one sounds self-evident, but I think it needs to be mentioned. Notice I did not say to tell people "I'm praying for you." I hear from too many people that such a phrase is used passive-aggressively towards them, to suggest that they are screwed up and need help. If you really believe that prayer works, then just do it.

There is no right or wrong way to "do" prayer. I think it is more about recognising the divine in all of creation and in one another; in noticing the brokenness in the world, and responding to it. This is what it means to make our whole lives a prayer. The Buddhists call it mindfulness. We Christians could use more of that.

5. "Quality over quantity." We have a bad habit of practising what I call air-drop Christianity. Whether it is an in-and-out mission trip, or a quick handshake on Sunday morning and then move on, we have a bad habit of sprinkling ourselves here and there, as if our faith were a garnish rather than at the heart of who we are.

Invest in people. It is hard work, but it is the stuff of life when we have the proper perspective.

6. "Share generously of yourself." This does not mean simply sharing a prepackaged testimonial story that you have told over and over again. It means taking an emotional risk, making ourselves open and vulnerable to others in the hope that they will feel comfortable being open and vulnerable to us.

The way in which we approach people, often in the context of evangelism, assumes an inherent imbalance of power, with us on the side of that power. We know the truth, and you don't; we are saved, and you're not; we are here to rescue you from yourself. But discipleship should be a lifelong and mutual investment. And why should we expect anyone to invest in us or what we believe if we are not willing first to take a chance with them?

7. "Be open to the possibility that you're wrong." Anyone who tells me that his or her faith has not evolved over time into something different from how it started makes me nervous. For some, this may involve only a deepening (or hardening) of existing beliefs, but, for others, it is a never-ending process of growth, pruning, and adding on.

Consider the disciples: were they ever wrong? Did they ever change their understanding of what they believed? Of course they did. Also, being open to the possibility that the person you are with could actually teach you something honours his or her wisdom and experience. Christian or not, every person has a unique story, because no one in the history of the world has ever lived that life except for him or her. Allow yourself to be moved and even changed by those experiences.

8. "Apologise." I have found that, sometimes, all people want is a simple apology for the hurt inflicted by other Christians. You may not have done anything personally to that individual, but, if you are a Christian, you represent the whole of Christianity to that person. It won't kill you to say: "I'm sorry you were pushed away, made to feel like less of a person, judged, condescended to, denied rights in the name of the faith I claim." Name the wrongdoing, validate the hurt, and then sit back and see what happens. More often than not, in my experience, such apologies are met with tears of relief, embraces, generous forgiveness, and, perhaps the best of all, fascinating stories.

9. "Own your love." We Christians love to say things such as "God loves you," but, for someone who is not sure what he or she believes, or who has been deeply hurt by the faith, this may ring hollow. Instead, why not say: "I love you"? Yes, it is risky, and if you don't mean it, don't say it. But, if you follow the steps above, it is not hard to find a spark of Christlike love for the person you are with.

If you find it difficult to muster such a personal offering of love, at least try something such as "You are loved," rather than leave it all to God or Jesus. If we are Jesus's body in the world today, this includes the heart. If only we were as good at being Christ's heart to the world as we are at being his mouth.

10. "Make sure your life reflects your faith." One of the words I hear most often in describing Christians is "hypocrite". There is a reason for this. One solution is to stop making verbal promises that your life does not live up to; another is for us to step up our game in daily life. People quote St Francis as saying: "Preach the gospel at all times, and when necessary use words." Whether or not it was he who said it, the fact is, if we are really living the life we find revealed in the Gospels, there will be little need for words to explain what it is that we believe.

Christian Piatt is a writer, editor, speaker, and musician. A different version of this article appears at sojo.net.

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