Spiritual Thesaurus Needed

It’s been a while back, so I can’t remember on whose blog I first came across the question about how to refer to people who don’t believe in Jesus as the Christ.

That’s an awkward phrase, “people who don’t believe,” and begs for a good one-word synonym.

I have trouble with “unbelievers.” It makes it sound like they once believed, but somehow un-did their belief. I’m sure that there are those who feel it was good enough for Paul when he wrote I Corinthians in King James English, but it’s just not doing the job for me.

“Disbeliever” is okay, but also seems to imply that a choice has been presented and rejected.

“Faithless” makes it sound like they don’t believe in anything, or that they’ve been romantic scoundrels, and that can’t be universally true of them.

“Unchurched” sounds too institutional and also strikes me as a good synonym for “excommunicated” or “disfellowshipped,” depending upon your institution’s preference.

Off The Map has trouble with “lost”, and – at the suggestion of Brian McLaren – prefers “missing persons” or “people who were formerly known as lost.” But both of those terms are really gangly-limbed, too; and carry at least as much baggage. So the site usually settles for just putting lost in Italics – maybe until a new term presents itself.

The old advertising-agency-copywriter-marketer in me wants to coin something positive and optimistic, like “pre-believer.” That’s not very realistic. About as realistic as defining all of them as “seekers.”

Last year, my New Year’s resolution was to try to see everyone I met as “someone for whom Christ died.” That’s a snaggly phrase, too, but I like it because it includes those who believe and those who don’t. So it won’t work to describe just … uh, someone who doesn’t believe.

(This year I’ve resolved to try to relate to people the way they would like me to relate to them … and if I can’t figure out how, I’m going to ask. Greg Taylor inspired it with his post The Platinum Rule. I just thought you’d be curious.)

Let’s see: “the damned” … no way … “the excluded” … no … “outsiders” … no … “fertile soil” … no no no. “The ignored” … ouch … “the unreached” … better; not there yet …

I’ll bet Jesus had a good Greek or Aramaic term that Matthew quoted four times and Luke once.

And I’ll bet it didn’t come out to five separate words:

“O ye of little faith.”


4 thoughts on “Spiritual Thesaurus Needed

  1. Keith

    Thanks for referring to Off The Map. Why not go out and ask people what they would like to be called . Ive done that and come up with

    “inactive volcano”
    “spritual seeker” ( this provides them the opportunity to self describe – always a good thing when trying to connect with the customer)

    There are NO great terms available yet due in large part to the fact that the church has spent so much time talking about itself if has forgotten how to talk about our customers

    One fix- it’s “the people formerly known as lost” ( a play on Princes non identifier)

    Thanks for playing
    Jim Henderson

  2. “Non-Christian” is simple and descriptive. But there are so many different ways of defining what constitutes being a “Christian” that the term “non-Christian” becomes as slippery as boiled okra with an oyster chaser. (For instance, my fellow blogger < HREF="http://www.blogger.com/r?http%3A%2F%2Fhomefront.blogspot.com%2F2005%2F01%2Fessence-of-essential-3.html">Fajita<> is struggling in a three-part post about the essence/essentials of salvation this week.)

  3. Keith, thanks for directing us to Fajita’s comments concerning “essentials”……they have been very good to read and ponder!

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