Some people grow up in homes where the Christian vocabulary is in the air, a substance they take in and breathe out naturally. As a child of parents who became Christians later in their lives, this was not the case for me.
In youth group and then my campus ministry, I found it difficult to understand the language of faith. Pastors and small group leaders urged me to “walk with the Lord” daily through my “quiet time” in order to better “pursue the lost” and “point others back to Christ.”
These phrases confused me. I read the Bible and talked to others about Jesus, but was never quite sure if I was living the Christian life my church leaders described. Their words were so abstract and my daily life was so concrete.
The Concrete Task Behind Abstract Verbiage
Years later, as I’ve watched others in ministry, I have come to understand the concrete task behind abstract verbiage such as “pointing others to Christ.” This phrase alludes to the challenge of helping people frame their successes and troubles within the Biblical story, rather than the isolated story of each person’s existence.
“Pointing people back to Jesus” means nothing more than asking others to consider their specific circumstances in terms of Jesus Christ’s agenda rather than their own, something I tried to do all along but never knew how to articulate.
My experience brought home to me the need for clarity when I discuss my faith with friends outside the church. If I, someone immersed in a Christian context during high school and college, have trouble making sense of the phrases I hear, how much more might somebody else who has only been casually exposed to our beliefs?
How do we peel back the surface of idioms such as “asking Jesus into your heart,” “believing on him,” “walking with the Lord,” and “pursuing the lost” and get to the heart of what these phrases mean in practice for us and our friends who don’t yet understand the gospel? The answer is twofold, and it is much simpler than we might think.
A Simple Test of True Faith
The most important part of bridging the communication gap begins in our own relationship with Jesus. It’s hard to communicate something we’re not sure of ourselves. How have Jesus’s words influenced your life? What are some specific ways you have changed since you became a believer?
It’s easy to say the right things to fit in with a group of other Christians, but a simple test of true faith is whether we have something to say to a person who doesn’t understand the figures of speech, who digs into the heart of the idioms in search of what they really mean.
What does it mean to “follow Jesus?” To “live in obedience” to him? To “make an idol” of something else? These are phrases we toss around in the church, but they require specificity and clarity in our conversations with others.
The more we explore these issues in our own lives, the more easily we can define them comfortably and naturally for others. Ultimately, the goal is not to give up on using Bible words, but to be ready with a meaningful translation when it’s needed.
Accessibility vs. Acceptability
As we strive to break down the language barriers and make our beliefs more accessible to our friends outside the church, it’s tempting to frame our beliefs in a way that makes them more appealing at the same time. Translation involves interpretation, and as we flesh out the tenets of our beliefs in conversation, it’s natural for us to describe them in a way that makes them more credible to our non-Christian friends.
It’s easy to confuse accessibility with acceptability. We often judge our success in conveying a message by whether the other person agrees with it. Unfortunately, this is a false standard of judgment.
The truth is, a person may understand what we say and yet still find it challenging and offensive. In fact, we should expect to occasionally receive this reaction from others, even as some of Jesus’s disciples said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” Jesus, instead of changing his words to make them more acceptable, said, “Do you take offense at this? . . . The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (John 6:60-63).
Are the words we speak pregnant with meaning, or are they vague because we desire acceptability over clarity? Spending time in God’s Word will help us hold fast to the truth of Jesus’s message as we learn to speak it in clearer terms.
Bridging the Communication Gap
The second half of bridging the communication gap is obvious but challenging to many Christians: spend time with people who don’t believe in Jesus. This will not only help us learn how others talk and think, but will provide the opportunity for us to foster genuine communication that goes beyond the surface of words: eye contact, tone of voice, tears, laughter, and gestures of kindness that speak to the heart and not just the head.
The purpose of communication is for one person to understand the other. This happens best when we take the time to ensure the other person does understand, talking with them and not at them — and we can only talk with others when we are with them.
Most Christians tend to struggle in one of these two areas, either finding it difficult to spend time with the Bible or difficult to spend time with people outside the church. Ideally, a believer should do both, staying true to God’s Word while showing God’s love to those who don’t yet know him.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that we entirely avoid comfortable Christian idioms, but rather that we maintain an awareness of the ambiguity those phrases may introduce into our conversations. Our call is to love our neighbor by taking the time to communicate well, to demonstrate hospitality through our words by welcoming our friends to explore our faith through conversation instead of using words to exclude them.
As we learn to better understand and represent God’s Word (the Bible) through our own words, we find ourselves not only leading others to the one who called himself the Living Word, Jesus Christ, but also imitating him by incarnating the Word — living out and embodying the truth of what we believe. That is a language which requires no translation.