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Speaking your audience’s language

How to avoid ‘Christianese’, by Rusty Wright

When you seek to communicate the message of Jesus to those outside the faith, do you ever feel like you’re not getting through? There can be many reasons for this, including their own resistance, spiritual blindness, spiritual warfare, ego, personal pain, anger with God, disappointment with God or Christians, etc. But a major reason might be that you just aren’t speaking their language.

Different languages

People speak different verbal languages. They also speak different psychological, emotional and intellectual languages. Suppose I make this statement:
Yo tengo un millón de dólares en mi bolsa y voy a darlo a la primera persona que venga acá y me lo pida.
Perhaps you know Spanish and understand this. Of course, many who don’t speak Spanish still understand the Spanish phrase un millón de dólares! As we say in English, “Money talks!” But if you did not understand my statement, you would not have realized that I was pretending to offer one million dollars to the first person to approach me and ask me for it. (And I was only pretending!) If you learned the translation late – and if I really had a million dollars to offer – you might feel cheated because I did not tell you of my offer in a language you could understand.

The gift

We are offering the people of our world a gift that is infinitely more valuable than a million dollars, the gift of peace with God and eternal life. But too often, we don’t speak their emotional and intellectual languages. I don’t know about you, but at the end of my life I don’t want to look back with regret on the people who didn’t appreciate Christ because I didn’t make the message clear. I want to speak their language so clearly that they see how attractive my Jesus is, so they run to Him to receive Him.

In communicating with non-believers, seek to avoid Christian jargon. Consider this example:

“The Bible says all you sinners need to repent and trust in the finished work of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who, through His propitiatory sacrifice on Calvary's cross, made atonement for you so you could be justified, redeemed, sanctified and gloriously saved!”
That is all true, but will the unbeliever understand it? How about this instead?
“The biblical documents explain that humans have an emptiness, an inner void, a longing to love and be loved. Jesus of Nazareth said he came to fill that void, to offer hope and genuine purpose. He died a physical and spiritual death to pay the penalty we/humans owed for our/their flaws and imperfections. Then he returned to life to offer us/people the opportunity to plug into God both now and forever.

If I had a traffic fine I could not pay, you could offer to pay it for me, as a gift to me. Just as I would need to accept your gift to pay my fine, so we/humans need to accept Jesus’ free gift of forgiveness to enjoy a friendship with him.”

Depending on the situation, you may wish to use either the more direct second-person or first person-plural (“you” or “we”) or the more indirect third-person plural (“humans”, “people”, “they”, etc.). You can make the Gospel very clear. Just use language that relates to your listeners and their situation.

Suggesting alternates

Consider a few additional suggestions for connecting with your audience.

Aim to contextualize your words and examples for your listeners or readers, and to paint memorable ‘word pictures’. Jesus took secular examples from the surrounding society and culture to fill out the content of abstract concepts. For instance, the Prodigal Son story illustrates repentance. The Lost Sheep story conveys God’s heart for someone whose life is a mess. Redemptive parallels from familiar stories that resonate with your audience can be vital. Popular culture is one very valuable source for such material.

For evangelism in a non-Western or non-Christian culture, careful use of language is equally important, because the words may carry entirely different connotations from those that Western Christians intend. Many non-Western societies are also shame cultures and view modes of behaviour in dramatically different ways than Westerners do.

Another audience that your ‘secular-friendly’ language may help is those who are familiar – even over-familiar – with Christian terminology. Some may let Christian jargon simply wash over them without attaching much meaning to the words, having been somewhat immunized to their truth. For others, ‘Christianese’ may trigger memories of negative or hurtful past church experiences. In both cases, jargon-free language can add freshness and clarity that helps minimize these potential communication barriers.

Here are some suggestions for translating ‘Christianese’ into language that can better connect with the non-believers you seek to reach. No item in the table below is inviolate, but ask God to give you wisdom to apply these suggestions as appropriate for your situation. Trust Him to give you words and thoughts that will help people understand God’s truth. Remember, you are not seeking to compromise God’s message, but simply aiming to communicate it using language and concepts your audience can understand, relate to, and digest.

Christianese jargon
Normal HumanSpeak: examples of equivalents
the Bible says
  • the biblical documents indicate ...
  • a biblical perspective would be that ...
  • a first-century follower of Jesus maintained that ...
  • Jesus’ close friends claimed he taught that ...
  • Paul, an early Christian, wrote in a letter to some friends ...
  • one first-century witness to the events claimed ...
  • an ancient Israeli king said ...
  • an ancient Jewish wise man/sage once wrote ...
  • etc.
saved, salvation
  • made safe (rescued) from separation from God
hell, damnation
  • separation from God forever
  • a consequence of deciding to reject God – who loves you and wants to be your friend – is having to live apart from him for eternity. That would not be pleasant at all.
sin(s)
  • separation from God
  • alienation from the Creator
  • a condition of being unplugged from God
  • human flaw(s)
  • moral flaw(s)
  • missing the mark of divine perfection
  • Some psychologists would call this separation from God ‘alienation’. The biblical documents refer to it as ‘sin’.

    Note: Using the word ‘sin’ is not always a turnoff, though increasingly in different cultures it can be variously misunderstood as only applying to certain limited behaviours (e.g., sexual, fraudulent, murderous, etc.). But introducing it with some phrasing like the above, and sprinkling such phrases throughout your discussion, can enhance a correct understanding of the concept. You’re not watering down or compromising truth. Rather, you’re seeking to communicate it in terms your audience can understand.

sin nature, depravity
  • fallen nature
  • to use a philosophical term, humans are deeply fallen
man is sinful
  • humans are alienated from the God of the universe by their rebellion
witness, evangelism
  • communicating the basic message of Jesus
pray/prayer
  • talking with/communicating with God
  • expressing your thoughts/views/heart to God
gospel
  • Jesus’ message of good news
  • Jesus’ basic message
  • Jesus’ perspective on/explanation of how humans can be plugged back in to God
saving faith
  • place trust in Jesus as the means of one’s forgiveness
  • getting plugged into God
you need to receive Christ today
  • a biblical perspective of how anyone becomes fulfilled and complete is that it involves developing a relationship with one’s creator.
propitiation
  • Jesus, through his sacrificial death on the cross, paid the penalty we owed for our rebellion/disobedience/alienation
God’s view is ...

the biblical view is ...

  • a biblical perspective would indicate ...
make Jesus your Lord
  • ask Jesus to become your best friend and give you the strength to follow his lead
© copyright Rusty Wright 2009

picture of Rusty Wright Rusty Wright is an award-winning author, journalist, syndicated columnist and lecturer who has spoken on six continents and appeared on secular television programs in cities around the globe. His free outreach resources have been used in 14 languages by over 500 websites – Christian and secular – around the world. He trains Christian leaders, broadcasters, print-media and Internet professionals in effective communication with secular audiences and holds Bachelor of Science (psychology) and Master of Theology degrees from Duke and Oxford universities, respectively.

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