Have you ever listened to a broadcast of a NASA launch? Or heard an accountant, lawyer, or engineer discuss a tricky question relating to his or her specialty? At times such experts may as well be speaking another language. Their jargon works perfectly for them, providing precise words for complex concepts or situations. But those terms and expressions can be frustrating for everyone else to follow.
We run into a similar situation when we try explaining basic Christian beliefs to newcomers and seekers. We regularly use a number of terms that are so handy and meaningful we find it quite difficult to explain the Bible’s central message without them.
That can cause an unnecessary stumbling block in the course of what could be a life-changing discussion with someone who needs to hear Jesus’ good news.
Let’s look at four examples of words we use to describe key concepts new Christians should hear about early on:
Try explaining the basics of Christian belief without using any of them.
When I got my first Bible, I was in my mid-20s and reasonably well educated. Not knowing any better, I bought a King James Version. Considering the difficulties I had in school with Shakespeare, I would have made a different choice if I had known I’d be plowing through words like wherefore and verily while trying to get to the key issues I was hungry to learn.
However, I did acquire the habit of substituting, in my own mind, simpler words for those puzzling terms. I still do it today, even when using my New International Version.
Grace, for example, has primarily one meaning in the current vernacular: something to do with beauty, delicate presentation, or movement. Telling someone that we are saved “through God’s grace” will not do much to explain this important Christian concept. I now substitute “grace” with “unearned kindness” whenever I come across that word.
The same applies to redemption. It’s rarely used in everyday North American English, nor is the root word, redeem. Somehow we have to find a way to express that it means to “buy back,” perhaps as in someone paying a ransom.
When we perform the sacrament of baptism, we often speak of God’s covenant with us. The fact that we are involved in a two-way deal, or bargain, with God is important and amazing. But talk of a covenant will likely pass over the average person’s head, causing us to miss the opportunity to explain our faith to unchurched friends and family who may be present for a baptism.
People in the media have studied how to reach a broad audience. We need to do the same.
Salvation is one of Christianity’s key words and concepts. It is perhaps the hardest one for which to find alternative terms that really satisfy. It’s of no use to explain to someone that her salvation depends on Jesus Christ if she has no clear understanding of that term, much less why she needs it. We need to have alternative words at the ready to explain that we are talking about a rescue.
One source we can turn to for faith language in the vernacular can be a paraphrase version of the Bible such as The Message. While these are not true translations of Scripture, they give us some ideas for better ways to explain things without using our beloved jargon.
It’s worth noting that it was precisely in order to make the gospel more accessible to new Christians that the New Testament was written in everyday, informal Greek language. And later, so it would make sense to the average person on the street, Martin Luther translated the Bible into everyday German.
However we work it out, it is important, as Peter tells us, to “be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Peter 3:15).FOR DISCUSSION:
- Have you ever had the occasion to talk with a nonbeliever about the Christian faith? How did you convey its message?
- What do you think of Tim Morrison’s message of changing traditional Christian language into something more understandable to people who aren’t part of the church? What did you think of the words he substituted? Do they adequately convey the message?
- Read a passage from your regular Bible and from The Message. How does the contemporary wording in The Message affect your understanding of the passage?
- What words of hope is the world hungry for today?