Lean in to your shadow side: ten new Christian phrases you need to know

'Lean into your shadow side'Tyson Dudley/Unsplash

Every subculture has its own special vocabulary. Whether you're a sci-fi geek or a football fan, a sailor or a social justice campaigner, your specific area of interest will have its own lexicon of words which don't make much sense to the uninitiated. No-one however, quite does this to the degree of awesomeness demonstrated by the evangelical wing of the Christian church, which not only has its own set of extraordinary jargon, but regularly adds to it.

So while you might have mastered some of the familiar basics of what we call 'Christianese', the language is constantly evolving to keep you on your toes. You might be aware of what it means to 'move into a time of worship', or even why it's important to have a 'hedge of protection', but do you know about the centrality of 'marinating' to the modern Christian faith? Before you panic, I've compiled a handy list of some of the latest Christian buzz-words, so you can look totally in the know if you ever find yourself backstage at a Hillsong United gig.

Lean in

One of the most popular forms of modern Christianese is the co-opting/spiritualising of management buzzwords. This one, coined by business wonder woman Sheryl Sandberg, was originally meant as a rallying cry to women in the workplace. In a church context though, it's used to suggest that we should metaphorically bend ourselves toward what God is doing in the world. At least I think it's metaphorically – otherwise we might see a new phenomenon in worship services where people try to stand at a 45 degree angle, and inevitably cause massive domino effects in churches. Warning: this could result in serious injury, and also be misinterpreted as a mass move of the Holy Spirit.


A fairly new, but quickly-pervasive phrase: character flaws have been redefined as 'the shadow side of a gift'. Like a sort of Christian theory of ying and yang, it describes how a great orator might also be a bit platform-hungry, or how someone with the gift of hospitality also has the waistline of a heavily-pregnant gorilla. The major problem with this phrase is that it can rather excuse lapses of character as a sort of inevitable by-product of gifting (a dangerous idea, as abused by many famous televangelists over the years), but it will probably endure on the basis that it sounds like the title of a Star Wars spin-off movie.


This, like most things, is Rob Bell's fault. The former evangelical poster-boy coined the phrase to talk about his sermon preparation process. Bell used it to describe how pastors like himself might spend a long time reflecting on an idea somewhere in the back of their minds, but confusingly it's also now used to describe the practice of quietly spending time in the presence of God (how Augustine and the other monastic heavyweights coped without ever using this word in their writings is beyond me). It does not refer to the practice of smothering oneself in BBQ sauce in an effort to get closer to God, although allegedly that is part of Rob Bell's daily spiritual routine these days.


Not to be confused with marinating, this is currently a hot word in prayer ministry circles. Although usage might vary, it generally means having a group of people gather around one or two individuals to pray for them en masse, as recently seen at the White House when President Donald Trump sat in the middle of a group of praying pastors. The metaphor – which unfortunately sort of reduces prayer to a currency of units – suggests that rather than splashing Trump's face with a single prayer, they drenched his entire body with a whole gallon of the stuff. Co-incidentally this is also the President's approach to applying fake tan.


A slightly archaic word which otherwise isn't usually heard outside of hospital maternity units, this is used in Christian circles to describe the belief that God is about to do something amazing. A service leader might say that 'we're expectant for God to move', which in itself is an unfortunate misuse of the beautiful English language, and usually comes straight after God has already demonstrated his power and glory several times to an experience-hungry congregation. It's a bit like that moment in a gig when you're begging the band to come back for a third encore. Just go home and listen to the album!

God showed up

Moving into the more excruciating category, this theologically-questionable beauty is a popular way of describing worship experiences which involve, as the millennials might say 'all the feels'. 'We worshipped, and God showed up'; 'God showed up in the midst of our prayers'. The problem with this is that it paints a picture of the omnipresent King of the Universe as a sort of Doctor Who figure, popping up in different points of time and space in response to distress calls, or a genie who only comes out of the bottle when you rub his lamp enough. The truth is that God is always with us the moment we start praying, because he was with us before that, and will be afterwards. But then, 'God remained present at all times even during that song that they started in the wrong key' is obviously a much less catchy phrase.

Time of presence

We've long been familiar with 'moving into a time' of different things: worship, prayer, and in at least one sector of the church, doughnuts. Now though, service leaders are increasingly inviting us to 'move into a time of presence.' I *think* this means we're about to dedicate the next part of our time together as a congregation to listening out for the voice of God, but it might also mean that the keyboard player is going to start playing what sounds like an emotive movie soundtrack, while some of the less inhibited people start making animal noises. Either appear to be an acceptable definition.

A bigger gift

Usually used to describe someone who is able to draw a large crowd, this is a way of delineating the Joel Osteens of this world, who can fill a football stadium, from people like me, who would pause before hiring a telephone box for a speaking event. This is because as we all know, the best way of judging someone's 'gifting' is by the size of the crowd they can pull. Saying 'we need to find someone with a bigger gift to kick off our conference' is a much more socially acceptable way of saying: 'Find me a New York Times Bestselling Christian Celebrity, I've got tickets to sell!'

Having 'faith for'

Another disturbing rewrite of acceptable English grammar, this is one of those phrases which walks the thin line between helpful encouragement and spiritual abuse (as do almost all of my articles for this site). A simple guide: it's ok to suggest someone should trust and faith in God, it's not ok to suggest that their lack of faith was the reason why something didn't happen (i.e. 'you just didn't have faith for it').

God's best

Finally, here's another buzz-phrase that can be used less-than-innocently. As puny humans it's rather presumptuous of us to suggest that we know the mind of the all-powerful creator of the universe, but that never stopped us before. These words are increasingly used in the context of one of those 'love the sinner, hate the sin' conversations, where while not condemning a person's personal conduct, we suggest it's not 'God's best' for them. Because of course, that triple cheeseburger you had for lunch, the way you walked past that homeless guy on the way in, and the fact that you live in an enormous house with a pool, are all examples of 'God's best', right...?

Martin Saunders is a Contributing Editor for Christian Today and the Deputy CEO of Youthscape. Follow him on Twitter @martinsaunders.