Tuesday Tips: Christian Clichés: Avoid them like the Plague!

Posted: February 1, 2011 in Tuesday Tips for Writers
Tags: , ,

Christian Clichés: Avoid them like the Plague!

by Joanna Nicolas-Na, OMF Lit Book Editor

OMF Lit regularly receives manuscripts seeking publication. The Publications department reads the manuscript and evaluates whether it is worth publishing.*

A main weakness we have seen in these manuscripts and in many Christian writing ( in blogs, web sites, sermons church bulletins, newsletters) is the use of Christian clichés. What are Christian clichés? These are words, phrases, or even whole sentences that many Christians tend to overuse. These terms although true and meaningful, sound trite and insincere because we say them all the time.

We wince when we watch parodies on TV of Christians exclaiming, “Hallelujah! Amen! Praise the Lord!” We resent the stereotype. Yet to people who have grown tired of hearing us speak “Christianese” even in normal conversation, yes, we do appear comical and closed-minded. We may give the impression that Christianity is just another clique full of clichés. Unfortunately, because of excessive casual use, “Hallelujah! Amen! Praise the Lord!” now seems like a memorized slogan.

Some Christian writers use Christian clichés because they have often heard them in church or encountered them in Christian circles, but it doesn’t mean that other people would immediately understand what the cliché means. For example, the phrase “saving knowledge of Christ” could be confusing to someone who’s had limited exposure to the Bible. Another example, “The Holy Spirit convicted me!” The word “convicted” has an entirely different meaning for most people.

Of course, every group or subculture has its own set of clichés. People habitually use certain words when talking to people who share their interests or lifestyle. It’s tricky avoiding clichés. Some say, it’s impossible to avoid them. However, in writing, clichés are little demons that distract the reader’s attention and steal the power of the message the writer wants to convey. Clichés don’t add anything new and they lack depth. Conscientious writers kill clichés.

Undeniably, writing is hard work. Christian writing could be even harder because some clichés mean exactly what they say. For example, “Jesus saves.” The challenge for the Christian writer is how to go around these clichés and look for sparkling new ways to tell people about Jesus. Writing without clichés is not easy but it could be fun and exercises our imagination.

Below is a list of some Christian clichés to avoid.

1.      abundant life

2.      after God’s own heart

3.      believe on (the name of the Lord)

4.      born again

5.      burden on my heart

6.      carnal desires

7.      Christian walk

8.      daily walk

9.      den of iniquity

10.  depths of depravity

11.  depths of despair

12.  desires of the flesh

13.  devout Catholic

14.  epitome of evil

15.  eternal refuge

16.  eternal resting place

17.  eternal reward

18.  fervent prayer

19.  forever and ever

20.  from on high

21.  get into the Word

22.  giant of the faith

23.  God-fearing man (or woman)

24.  God made known to me

25.  God-shaped vacuum

26.  good Christian

27.  groanings of the spirit

28.  grounded in the faith

29.  grounded in the Word

30.  heart of the gospel

31.  heavenly angels

32.  heavenly anthems

33.  hellfire and damnation

34.  hopeless sinner

35.  inspired Word of God

36.  just pray (just ask)

37.  laid upon my heart

38.  let go and let God

39.  life-changing experience

40.  life everlasting

41.  life of sin

42.  lift up to the Lord

43.  lift (someone) up in prayer

44.  lusts of the flesh

45.  meet his (or her) Maker

46.  moved by the spirit

47.  of old (as in “Abraham of old”)

48.  passions of the flesh

49.  pearly gates

50.  prayer warrior

51.  precious blood of Jesus

52.  prepare our hearts

53.  primrose path

54.  realms of glory

55.  rooted in the faith

56.  rooted in the Word

57.  seventh heaven

58.  share a verse (of Scripture)

59.  sins of the fathers

60.  snares of the Devil

61.  sorely tempted

62.  soul of humility

63.  soul-stirring message

64.  spiritual high

65.  spiritual state

66.  spoke to my heart

67.  stand before the judgement seat

68.  stars in one’s crown

69.  storms (tempests) of life

70.  straight and narrow

71.  take it to the Lord

72.  throughout eternity

73.  time immemorial

74.  traveling mercies

75.  trials and tribulations

76.  trophies of grace

77.  trust and obey

78.  unto eternity

79.  unspoken needs

80.  uphold in prayer

81.  urgings of the spirit

82.  vale of tears

83.  victorious living

84.  walk with God

85.  watch and pray

86.  wicked ways

87.  wiles of the Devil

88.  wondrous ways of God

89.  word of prayer

*For guidelines on submitting manuscripts to OMF Lit, please visit www.OMFLit.com and click on “Publishing.”

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Comments
  1. JR Chong says:

    Hi Joanna,

    While I agree that some of the phrases which you enumerated are cliches (which you referred to as “little demons”), in my humble opinion, some phrases should not be avoided in a good Christian book like you suggest. Examples are “born again” (John 3:7), “inspired Word of God” (2 Timothy 3:16), “everlasting life” (John 3:16) and “wicked ways” (2 Chronicles 7:14).

    As an Evangelical, I strongly believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God (a “cliche”). Christians should NEVER shirk using words as used in the Bible itself. Isaiah 55:17 (KJV) reads: “So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: It shall not return unto me void, But it shall accomplish that which I please, And it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it.”

    It is our solemn duty as Christians to preach the Word, in season and out of season; to correct, rebuke and encourage – with great patience and careful instruction (2 Timothy 4:2). What better way to do this by using biblical language? Do we avoid telling a person that God has for him/her everlasting life for the sake of avoiding a “cliche”?

    Although I understand the context of your article, I think advising budding Christian writers to avoid what you identified as cliches “like the plague” is uncalled for, especially coming from an editor of a respected Christian publishing house which primarily ministers to Christians of different persuasions. Some might even take offense to this article.

    I do agree with you that ideas can be presented in “sparkling new ways.” I dabble in writing myself. But a good Christian book must be distinguishable from others. The inspired Word of God (a “cliche”) reads in Romans 12:2 (KJV): “And do conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.”

    Just my two cents.

  2. omflit says:

    Dear JR

    Thank you for your comment. Your comment raises several points which are helpful and contributes to a healthy exchange of ideas.

    I agree with you that’s impossible to not use Christian clichés, especially when the cliché is straight from the Bible such as the examples you gave: “born again” (John 3:7), “inspired Word of God” (2 Timothy3:16), “everlasting life” (John 3:16) and “wicked ways” (2 Chronicles 7:14). I think it’s acceptable to use these “clichés” if they are in the context of a Biblical passage, or if the writer quoted them and indicated
    the Bible verse where it came from, and if the writer expounded on what these “clichés” mean.

    What I failed to emphasize in my article is the excessive use of Christian words or phrases without much thought on whether or not the reader could understand what he is saying. For example, I have come across an article where “born again” or “You must be born again!” were repeatedly used in paragraph after paragraph. This writer used “born again” almost like a stock phrase and he did not adequately explain what being “born again” entails. Some writers (whether Christian or not), unconsciously use
    clichés as a crutch because they do not take the extra effort of thinking of new ways of relaying a point that has already been constantly said.

    The goal of Christian writing is to tell as many people as possible about Jesus. This is a tough task because many people have already formed their own ideas about Jesus and Christians. And sometimes, clichés could get in the way of the reader’s understanding. A non-Christian may read a piece of Christian writing and feel alienated because the writing is full of Christian clichés which have meaning for the Christian, but could be meaningless for the non-Christian.

    The challenge of writing, always, is how to convey one’s message in the clearest and freshest way. Certainly, clichés can work in writing, especially if the writer wants to inject irony or humor. However, the writer should exercise caution. He should check whether the cliché clarifies his point and adds vibrancy to his writing or only deadens the message and makes it sound trite. It’s up to the writer to choose whether to use clichés or not.

    Thank you again JR for taking the time to read the OMF Lit blog. You mentioned that you dabble in writing. Perhaps you also have writing tips you can share?

    Sincerely,

    Joanna

  3. yay olmedo says:

    I believe people will not really mind cliches as long as they effectively express what the author intends to say. I’ve read quite a number of authors who just breeze through them like daily conversation; and does the reader mind? Appropriateness seems to me the bigger issue. And if we litter our writing with a lot of cliches, that’s another thing. But if you’re saying that popular verses in the Bible are already cliches, then we have a problem. Isn’t that the reason why Christian writers write?

    As a Christian author, how can I not use the Word? Some may find it cliche-ish, but I don’t think I will ever tire hearing or reading these verses because they always spark a new meaning every time you read them, depending on your current circumstance. I’ve read and re-read and heard these verses and never grown tired of them. I believe that is also true of the reader, especially one who may be looking for answers or deeper insights.

    I totally agree with JR. The Word of God is powerful and it will not come back to Him void. Our purpose for writing is different from the purpose of those who write only for themselves. When I decided to write, what was foremost in my mind was to let people know about Christ and help them grow in their faith, whatever their station in life. Our only agenda is His. So we treat the Word of God with respect, and don’t take it lightly. This narrows our choices as writers.

    Now I agree that we should also be understood and must be skillful and effective writers, so we re-paraphrase and try to say things differently, inject humor once in a while. But no one has a proprietary or exclusive rights with certain words. So we tell a story or write a novel. We use metaphors and word pictures. And we sometimes use cliches. But even with all those, if the WORD is missed out, what will become therefore of our writing? Just like any out there which may be nice to read and fresh and glowing. But unless God gets the glory, it is for nothing.

  4. Even Jesus recognized that people calling him Lord could be guilty of using that title as a cliché.

    Being a communicator, my concern is (and always should be) this: will what I say and the way I say it convey the meaning I intend to communicate to the person I’m talking to?

    If I keep that in mind, I may end up using a few clichés in my piece. Or none at all.

    Blessings,
    Efren

  5. D. de la Vega says:

    I heartily agree with Ms. Nicolas-Na’s article. But to address the points raised by the other commentators: using the Word of God is one thing, lifting popular verses from the Bible is another—especially when used out of context or used in the tired old way that may not even be fully consistent with what the verses really say when read in their proper contexts—and using “Christianese” cliches and passing them off as profound thoughts is yet another thing altogether. Funny thing is, many of the cliches that Ms. Nicolas-Na pointed out are not really taken from the Bible but are popular catch-phrases taken from songs and other popular sources. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Please bear with me as I present my thoughts on the matter:

    Preaching Truth or parroting Bible verses?
    First, it is the TRUTH of the message that we are not to deviate from, not word usage. The same phrases cited are stated differently–that is, using different words–in different translations of the Bible, from (in order from dynamic to word-accurate levels of translation) The Message to Good News to NLT to NIV to KJV to ESV to NASB. For example, John 3:16 reads “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” in the New International Version (NIV); “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” in New American Standard Bible (NASB) (note the inclusion of “begotten”); and “This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life.” in The Message (note the radical rephrase of “eternal life”).

    About using words taken from the Bible to convey biblical truth, should we start writing in Koine Greek and ancient Hebrew–or even 17th-century Shakespearean English–to convey the Gospel message? Is that the only way to convey that message? Which version/translation should we use? We should not interchange concepts and truths with the words used to express them. As I just learned from a missionary, there is a kaleidoscope of images and words used in the Bible to convey just the broad concept of “salvation,” none of them are cliches. Just because we are not using the same words that we find in our cherished TRANSLATION of Holy Writ as presented in our favorite Bible study guide doesn’t mean we are not preaching the Word.

    Mr. Chong, you quoted: “Isaiah 55:17 (KJV) reads: ‘So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: It shall not return unto me void, But it shall accomplish that which I please, And it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it.'” I must confess that I had a hard time looking for Isaiah 55:17 because Isaiah chapter 55 ends with verse 13 in all the Bibles I had at hand. Nevertheless, your use of the passage (Isaiah 55:11) is out of the context of the discussion at hand. It speaks about the sovereignty, omnipotence and trustworthiness of God, that is, just as the rain falls and inevitably nourishes the soil and produces fruit before it is evaporated into the sky (verse 10), so the word of God will be inevitably fulfilled. This whole discourse is preambled by the loftiness of God’s wisdom in verse 9. It says nothing about using biblical words verbatim. But following your point, I honestly believe, based on the very verse you quoted, that God is sovereign and His purpose could never be undone simply because Christian writers used words that are different from current translations of the Bible, just as we can’t stop the rain from falling and watering and nourishing the soil. On the flip side, I have to ask, can we really say that Christian writers truly write books consistent with biblical truth just because they quote many verses verbatim? Or, if a Christian writer does not quote verses and do not write our favorite quotes from famous songs and sermons, or do not present the Gospel in the popular formulaic way, is his book no longer Christian? Is he no longer Christian? C.S. Lewis has excellently written about the basics of Christian faith WITHOUT quoting a single Bible verse in his book “Mere Christianity.”

    Preaching of the Word is not limited to lifting verses verbatim. In fact, it is hard to present the Gospel using Bible verses to someone who does not even acknowledge that the Bible is from God, or even acknowledge that there is a God. It is our actions and our lives, even our writing, that are more compelling testimony. I’ve heard someone quote Nietzsche as saying, “If Christians would act more saved, then I might have believed in their Savior.” I think it was St. Francis of Assisi who said something like preach the Gospel at all times, and if necessary, use words. If we are truly Christians as writers, we cannot help but write about Christ as we know Him, often using words that are more our own. However, if the writer is not that grounded in his faith, and the truths he professes is not fully real in his life, he will tend to parrot what he has been taught in the exact words used because he has not completely understood what they mean.

    Cliches
    Regarding cliches, cliches can also be called “jargon.” To illustrate, the phrase “Word of God” is not easily understood by many people. When I was not a believer, I thought “Word of God” meant a literal word. This is the same case of me counting each word in Jesus’ sentences to determine which sentence contained His 7 last words. I’m not joking. “Word of God” automatically means “Bible” to many Christians, and yet how does this explain the occurrences of “The word of the LORD came to…” in the Bible. Does that mean a literal Bible came to these men of God?

    Another example is “born again.’”An esteemed Scripture scholar named Nicodemus didn’t understand this at the onset, such that he needed to ask Christ about it. In the nominal Filipino mind, to be “born again” means to “change religion” or even become “clap-clap” (my mother used this in reference to the worship services of Pentecostals as shown on TV) and “cult.” Can you say to a non-believer that she has to be “born again” and have her understand it without you being there to explain that it is not about religion but about relationship, that it doesn’t mean losing your sanity and swaying to emotional music like a mad woman?

    A third example: “glorify God.” Christians often say that our lives should “glorify God.” Yet ask them what that means in real life, in concrete terms, what that means and many will sport an expression on their faces that tells you they never really thought about that question. If many Christians can’t even define—much less define correctly—what their own jargon means, how much more who are not of their social circle?

    If we insist on using cliches/jargon, we will end up writing for believers and preaching to the converted. We are already in danger of living in our own Christian bubble, where–to quote Christian singer and songwriter Steve Taylor–we “only drink milk from a Christian cow.” The frightening thing here is that the insistence on using cliche words would inevitably lead to the preaching of cliche concepts that, although are truth in themselves, are limited truth slanted towards a specific denominational tenet or a popular pastor’s pet theology. Both Scripture and language are too rich and multi-faceted to be subjected to such abuse. And our God is even more muti-faceted, the depths of Whose personality we cannot even begin to plumb and no one definition would ever do Him justice.

    Good and bad Christian books
    What distinguishes a good Christian (not necessarily evangelical; evangelicalism is just one denomination) book from other books is that it accurately, even if incompletely, shows who God is and what His heart is for people and the rest of the world. What distinguishes a good Christian book from a bad Christian book is that a good Christian book does not intelligibly exclude, that is, it can be understood even by non-believers because it is written in a language that THEY can understand (not necessarily accept). The concepts and truths are the same, undiluted and uncompromising, but the language is intelligible to those who do not know Christ.

    • JR Chong says:

      I just read the latest comments to this article today. I apologize for the wrong citation. It was an honest mistake. I should have written Isaiah 55:11 and not Isaiah 55:17. I sincerely appreciate my fellow commentator for pointing that out. Nonetheless, I stand by my opinion.

  6. omflit says:

    Thanks everyone for your comments.

    For those interested in the source of the list of Christian clichés to avoid, it’s A Christian Writer’s Manual of Style by Bob Hudson and Shelley Townsend (published by Zondervan, 1988). I’m sorry I was not able to indicate this in the article.
    I got the list from the first edition but the list also appears in the updated and expanded edition published in 2004 with the slightly modified title of The Christian Writer’s Manual of Style and under his full name, Robert Hudson. Mr. Hudson is a senior editor-at-large at Zondervan.

    His brief discussion on Christian clichés in the new edition is also helpful. He wrote:
    “Every religion develops its own unique vocabulary. It helps the faithful communicate with each other but often leaves those outside feeling excluded. So called evangelical Christians have developed a vocabulary that is often opaque to non-Christians as well as to Christians outside evangelical circles. While much of this vocabulary may be unavoidable when communicating to a narrowly defined market, writers should be especially wary of using such Christian jargon when writing for a larger audience.
    “Unconsciously, some writers allow the often-outdated rhetorical language of sermons, hymns, and devotional literature to shape their prose, resulting in indefiniteness, lack of originality, and, at worst, insincerity. Like clichés, anachronisms, and archaisms, jargon has a legitimate and valuable purpose in the hands of a careful writer, but it can be an obstacle to good communication. Religious writing can only be strengthened as writers learn to find fresh and contemporary ways of expressing their ideas.”

    The quote encapsulates the point I wanted to make in my article. Definitely, it was not my aim to discourage anyone from using Bible verses in writing.

    Joanna

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