Thursday, 9 November 2017

Bridging the Gap by Using Words that People Understand

I want to continue looking at ways that we, as believers, can narrow the widening gap between ourselves and non-believers, in order to effectively present the Gospel message.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the language and words Christians use in general speech both within and outside the walls of the church. Also, the content of sermons and the hymns that we sing.

I’m sure we’ve all experienced the anxious wait to see who the speaker is having invited a new person to church. We pray that the message will be specifically relevant for our friend and at a level that they can understand. However, this isn’t really what I’m referring to because conviction of sin is a work of the Holy Spirit in a person’s heart. Therefore, any message can be used by God provided it is from the Bible. I may have mentioned before that I know someone who was saved when they heard a message on the dry bones in Ezekiel and realised it was referring to their lack of life as a non-believer!

Perhaps in some Christian circles there has been an over-reaction to the watering down of the Gospel message in modern times. One consequence might be that we cling on to the language of generations past for fear of inadvertently changing the message.  

To be fair to him, my pastor is very aware of this issue and often explains the meaning of words in hymns or in the Bible as they arise. However, I think we fail to appreciate the sheer number of words that we use as Christians that are now totally foreign to non-believers. This is partly due to the lack of church attendance by the majority and also the lack of Bible teaching in schools. Ignorance of church words and language is increasingly prevalent.

Having grown up in the church, I found myself recently examining the words of a hymn we were about to sing. I realised that I didn’t understand a lot of the words and that therefore the meaning was completely lost on me. I spent a while grappling with possible meanings before giving up and glancing around to see whether others were similarly perplexed. I ended up singing the words without understanding them which meant that for all intents and purposes my mind was unfruitful.

There is not much difference between me doing this and someone reciting a mantra or chant in a foreign language. Indeed, earlier this week, a friend quoted a Sikh prayer that he prays each day in an Indian language. I asked him what it meant and he asked me to wait whilst he looked it up in English on his Smart-phone! I pointed out that there wasn’t much point in reciting a ritualistic prayer to a god if he didn’t understand what he was saying. (Interestingly, when I did look at the prayer in English I recognised that a lot of it had come straight from the Bible, but that’s another subject….)

Words have also changed their meaning within our culture. We were studying Ephesians this week and the use of the word mystery. The point was made that, in the Bible, God and some of His works, are described as mysterious, meaning that they are incomprehensible to us. Whereas, society would see a mystery as a game, or puzzle, or something to be solved.

I’ve also made the mistake of using words that I thought were obvious during live-chat with people on Chatnow. I asked someone how they thought their Christian witness would be affected if they took a certain course of action. They simply replied, “what do you mean my witness?” A witness in society is someone who has seen a crime, not something to do with their faith. I then used the word testimony which they also didn’t understand, I wasn’t sure where to go from there but managed to simplify my language sufficiently in the end.

I joined a group for some Open Air ministry a few weeks ago. The enthusiastic team were from a church that uses the King James version of the Bible only. There came a point when the preacher was trying to engage a young man, probably of Middle Eastern nationality, in the crowd. The preacher had asked him if he knew why his faith was flagging. He didn’t know the answer so the preacher asked him whether he had “drawn nigh unto God.” The man looked bewildered but the preacher continued telling the man that if he “drew nigh unto God then God would draw nigh unto him.” Looking on, I knew that there was no way this man would have understood the word “nigh” yet this was the word being repeated to him over and over again. In this context, the question and instruction made no sense unless the person understood that key word. Would there have been any harm in updating the word to “near” or “close” to ensure the understanding of the lay person in the street?

When discussions arise about which version of the Bible to use, my answer tends to be that a person should use the most accurate translation that they can understand. For some, this might encourage laziness as they go with a paraphrase or something that reads like a children’s picture book when they are an adult. I’m not advocating this as we can all do with a careful study of the Bible and this usually involves stretching our minds. I also don’t recommend versions like The Message or The Street Bible. Personally, I prefer ESV for understanding and accuracy. I also sometimes use NASB and NIV. My church uses NKJV. I ended up reading aloud from a KJV at a Bible study recently and was forced to smother a laugh due to the dated language. Sorry if that offends anyone, I know that those who use KJV hold a sincere belief that it is right to do so!

There are numerous words that trip off our tongues as Christians but are we considering the person we are speaking to and attempting to engage. How often have you heard someone ask a preacher, or even a friend in conversation, “What does that word mean, I don’t know it?” People won’t ask because they don’t want to appear ignorant or embarrass themselves. They will just pretend they understand. Those really interested in the topic, or wanting to expand their vocabulary, might care enough to look it up later, but the majority won’t.

As society sadly slides towards widespread atheism, we need to be simplifying and explaining words that may, in the not too distant past, have been in common use. Most of us realise the need to explain words like sanctification, justification and substitutionary atonement, but are we thinking about words like fellowship, sin, the Lord’s Supper and outreach? Nearly every word that specifically, and probably exclusively, relates to Christians (and church) might now need to be explained in certain circumstances. We mustn’t assume even a basic level of knowledge unless we know the person.

There is also a case for updating the words of our hymns and songs so that they can be understood by everyone singing them. I’m not talking about changing the meaning, just cutting out the “thees, thys, deigns” and others.

Let’s make sure we are not placing unnecessary barriers in front of people by using words they don’t understand.

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