Lost in Our Language
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I was teaching at a national seminar on how to communicate an unchanging Christ in our rapidly changing culture. Well, at the end of a session, a pastor from Kentucky came up to tell me a story that he thought really illustrated some of what I had been saying. He said, "When I was a young man, we used to have some big tent revivals in my community. Each night an invitation was given for folks to come forward if they wanted to be, well as this country preacher said, 'borned again.'" The pastor went on to describe how some of the deacons would actually go out into the audience and go row-to-row to, shall we say, to "encourage" folks to make that choice. Near the back, one of the deacons came to a young man who gave him an honest and memorable response. The deacon said, "Son, do you want to be borned again?" To which the boy said, "No." The deacon pressed the point, "Why don't you want to be borned again?" The young man answered in all seriousness, "Cause I'm afraid this time I'd come out as a girl!"
Okay, first we can laugh at what that boy said. Then, when we're done laughing, let's think about what we can learn from a response like that. The preacher used words that the preacher understood, but apparently not everyone who was listening understood. It's a classic example of the problem with a language called "Christianese." It's the language church folks speak without even thinking, and a language that folks who desperately need our message don't begin to understand.
Many of our "Christianese" words are good Bible words, but words that many lost people around us just don't know. For just a moment, would you try to "think lost." Think what a person without the context of a Christian environment hears when we say words such as "accept" or "receive Christ as your personal Savior." We receive packages today, not people, and when we accept someone, we treat them right. When you try to hear what a lost person hears, words like "salvation" and "saved" and "become a Christian" are either not understood or misunderstood. Oh yeah, and "born again."
In a world without absolutes, the word "sin" has become a word without meaning to many people, as has the word "believe." Most people would probably say "yes" if you asked if they believe in Jesus. And you'll know that they don't mean what the Bible means when it says, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ." Even the word "Savior" is not one people use much today. These are great words, but the people who need Jesus the most have no idea what they mean. That's what makes our word for today from the Word of God such a mission critical prayer for any of us who know people that we want to take to heaven with us. In Colossians 4:3-4, Paul says, "Pray for us that God may open a door for our message...Pray that I may proclaim it clearly as I should."
It's not enough to just transmit the Good News about Jesus. Like good missionaries, we need to ask God to help us translate it into non-religious words that lost people can understand. If a man came running into the room you're in, shouting in Swahili, "The room is on fire! Evacuate immediately!" you'd probably think he was sincere; that he had something important to say. But you'd have no idea what he was saying, because it wasn't in words you could understand. It's not in your language, and you might die as a result. No matter how important the message. No matter how sincere the messenger.
The spiritually dying people around us hear us Christians announcing our all-important message, often in words they don't understand. We have life-or-death information that their eternity depends on. We can't afford for them to get lost in our language, or they may be lost forever.