Tired of Being Trite: My Ongoing, Semi-Successful War On Ministry Clichés

Six steps that stop me from dumbing down the gospel (when I remember to follow them).

TRITE /trīt/ (Adjective) Overused and consequently of little import, lacking originality or freshness.

It’s easy to become trite when you’re a pastor. After all, we’re in constant output mode. Whether we’re preaching, teaching, comforting or just hanging out (you may know it as fellowship). We talk a lot.

It’s not always easy to know the right thing to say, so we sometimes find a handful of clichés and repeat them at regular intervals – even if we don’t realize we’re doing it.

Not everything we say can be original, of course. As Solomon reminded us, there’s nothing new under the sun. But that’s never an excuse to be trite.

Pastoral triteness often involves the use of “Christianese” – insider lingo that means nothing to others and stops meaning much to us after constant, thoughtless repetition.

In response to that, we’re often told we need to stop using old, worn-out phrases. I agree with that. I’ve fought a war on “Christianese” (ironically a very Christianese word) for decades. But when we try to be new and cool, sometimes we’re just trading the triteness of one generation for the triteness of the next. Or the triteness of the Christian culture for the triteness of the non-christian culture.

Don’t Dumb The Bible Down

As ministers of the Gospel, let’s stop dumbing down the gospel in the way we speak.

After all, we serve a God who is anything but trite.

We read about him in an ancient library of books (aka the Bible) of such profound depth and wisdom that people spend their entire lives studying them, while standing on the shoulders of generations of wise, godly teachers. Yet at the end of a lifetime of ministry we’ll all discover that we barely scratched the surface.

When people come to church to hear us expound on the depths of this ancient and eternal wisdom, we are often guilty of offering them worn-out Christian clichés or trivial platitudes.

When people face deep suffering, the Bible, lived in relationship with other believers offers so much that can really help them navigate their painful way through it. But too often we offer them feel-good sayings, then go on our way, instead of sitting with them and maybe pondering the profoundly deep, soul-soothing anguish of the Psalms.

Don’t Dumb Jesus Down

We are followers of Jesus. The least trite, most profound thinker and speaker who ever lived. (Being God in flesh tends to do that.) Jesus regularly put more deep truth into a single sentence than all the “original” words I will utter in my life. And he backed up every word with even more profound actions.

But instead of allowing Jesus to speak for himself, we often replace him with stale platitudes, meaningless traditions and pop psychology trivialities. And when we do so, we make him appear trite, too.

But we really don’t need to do that. It’s not like Jesus’ teachings are word-heavy, or his ideas too complicated. His teachings, especially his parables, are simple enough to be grasped by children, and often short enough for Twitter. But the depth. Oh, the depth.

We need to get out of the way and allow Jesus’ voice to be heard. As purely, clearly, and joyfully as possible.

Why do we keep dumbing Jesus down?

Yet I do it on a regular basis. So my war on triteness starts and ends with me.

Here are six commitments I have made to avoid being trite with the gospel.

1. I will ask hard questions before I speak or write.

Questions like

  • “Do I really believe that?”
  • “If so, why?”
  • “If not, why not?”

And most importantly,

  • “Is that anywhere close to the way Jesus would act, talk or think?”

2. I will be skeptical of anything that fits my worldview too perfectly.

I have to stop assuming that my thoughts are deep, while everyone else’s are shallow. Including the (probably false) Facebook link that absolutely confirms I was right about this! Whatever my “this” may be today.

3. I will avoid offering pat answers in hard situations.

I don’t know why kids suffer through their parents’ divorce, why cancer took someone so young, or how to help a teenager overcome suicidal thoughts. So I won’t pretend to offer answers I don’t have.

But I will listen to you. I will walk through it with you. And, most importantly, I will point you to the one who has real answers, by doing #4.

4. I will rely more directly on the life and teachings of Jesus.

Whether I’m preaching topically, teaching exegetically, retelling an Old Testament story, or comforting someone suffering great loss, Jesus will be my template for speech and behavior.

5. I will not worry about being original.

First, because I can’t be. But mostly because my greatest idea is nothing more than regurgitated nonsense compared to Jesus’ simplest thought.

6. I will strive to be genuine.

Communicating the ideas of Jesus starts with living in close relationship with Jesus. I want my words to match my actions. And I want all of it to be like Jesus.

The closer I can get to that, the less trite and more genuine my presentation of the anything-but-trite gospel will be.

Genuine is the antidote to trite.

(Photo by Chris Yarzab | Flickr)

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