He admitted he hadn’t been in church in years, since he attended a funeral Mass for an aunt who died when he was in college. And so when my friend agreed to try a worship service at a Bible-believing church I recommended near his Ohio home, I couldn’t wait to get his response.
I called him that afternoon.
“Well?” I asked, after some mindless chit-chat. “How’d it go at church this morning?”
“Fine,” he said, though his voice betrayed an unmistakable tension. There was an awkward pause. Then, as an afterthought, he tried to appease me. “I liked the music.”
“Well, the preacher lost me when he started talking about this born again stuff. As soon as he started with that spiel I couldn’t wait to get out of there.”
My heart sank. There it was. Again. The language barrier.
What my friend heard when the preacher said “born again” isn’t what Christians hear.
The bottom line is my friend, conditioned by a culture that is decidedly anti-Christian and a mass media that uses words like “cult” and “born again” and “religious extremist” as synonyms, all but bolted from that service because he made wrong assumptions about what was being said from the pulpit.
I told him how, like any group or special interest, Christians tend to have their own lingo. I then started translating those words… words like repent, born again, salvation, even sin… into regular English.
My friend started to get it that day. His hostility level dropped as he realized he was making assumptions and reacting out of ignorance. I wish I could say he were a Christian today. He’s not. But God is still working on him. And he’s at least aware that cultural impressions can be wrong.
I have spent most of my life in the secular media. And I can say with certainty that Christianese is a language not understood outside of the church. It used to be, of course, a couple of generations ago when we were a much different people in a much different culture.
Church is alien to a lot of people.
For example, a newspaper editor friend of mine once called me at home after hours. “Hey Wendland,” he asked. “I’m copy-editing a news brief and it’s about a concert at a church and it says there will be a ‘love offering.’ Does that mean what I think it does? Thought I’d check before we promote an orgy.” You think I’m kidding? I’m not. I really got that call.
My editor friend had heard of some cults that mix up sex and evangelism and he thought he had just caught what would have been a promotion for such a thing.
“No, no,” I told him, suppressing snickers. “A love offering is another way of saying they’ll take up a collection, a donation to give to the musical group.”
“Well why don’t they just say that?” he said, now embarrassed at his misinterpretation.
“We must learn the language of our audience,” Lewis wrote. “You must translate every bit of your theology into the vernacular. I have come to the conclusion that if you cannot translate your thoughts into uneducated language, then your thoughts are confused.”
The great apostle Paul did just that when he met on Mars Hill in ancient Athens with the culturally sophisticated Greeks, people who Acts 17:21 says “spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.”
Paul spoke to them in the language of their culture, everyday language, using cultural touch points from the Athenian poets, establishing a common ground and then the Gospel.
Did it work? “Some of them sneered, but others said, ‘We want to hear you again on this subject.’”
Why did they want to hear more? Because he spoke to them in culturally relevant terms.
So should we.
We’re not talking about watering down the Gospel. We’re talking about opening a conversation. Let’s not let initial misunderstandings about the words we use stop the conversation from getting started.http://ht.ly/564rT
Mike Wendland joyfully serves as the Innovations and Internet Pastor for Woodside Bible Church, a large, evangelical multi-campus church in suburban Detroit. He is a former journalist, syndicated columnist and network TV tech reporter.