A Lesson in Language

A Lesson in Language

 

“… the people of all nations and languages, and they will come and see my glory.” Isaiah 66:18b

 

One of the first things a missionary does in a new land, if not before they arrive, is learn the language. It’s not just essential for basic living, but to do their mission: communicating the gospel to the people who live there.
Reaching out to people in their language is important. It’s vital to the growth of Christianity.
But in North America, we forget the importance of language. We go about our lives, being more cautious not to let the secular world affect us, instead of focusing on how we can positively affect it. When we do witness, we assume that since we are speaking the same general language as the secular world, our message is getting across.

 

If you’ve ever had a miscommunication in marriage, you know this simply isn’t true. Motives, speaking patterns, and emotions change language meaning. Dialects, slang, and cultural idioms can change meanings of language. Language is both beautiful and complicated.

 

Christians have their own language. We use terms that either mean nothing or have different definitions to anyone outside our “club.” It’s normal for a group to develop their own slang: engineers, doctors, gamers, geeks, and sports fans. The term "Christianese" has been coined to refer to the dialect Christians have developed.

 

Ever use words like fellowship, testimony, convicted, or witnessing with non-Christian friends in general conversation? These terms–and a large list of others–all are part of the dialect Christians use. It becomes part of our everyday language and living, making it easy to forget that non-Christians (and even new Christians) don’t know what we are saying.

 

When we don’t speak the same language as those we're trying to reach, we isolate ourselves, alienate non-Christians, risk miscommunication, and make it much harder for people to understand the truth.

 

There are times when God opens doors for us to tell others about Jesus, but if we can’t speak the same language as them, we might as well not be talking at all. The best part is that it only takes paying attention and a slight change of habit to fix how we communicate.

 

Here is some translated “Christianese”:

Fellowship: interacting and spending time with friends
Conviction: feeling guilty or a deeply held belief
Testimony: one’s own story
Witness to: talk to someone about Jesus
Sin: acts that separate us from God; breaking God’s laws
Repent: stop doing the stuff God doesn’t want us to do and changing one’s behavior

 

The definitions above are oversimplified for general conversation, but the purpose is to make what we say understandable to the audience we are engaging. As the conversation deepens and one’s curiosity or faith grows, you can introduce the Christian words and explain the depths of their meaning. It’s an opportunity.

 

A political figure was recently asked if she would be submissive to her husband if she were elected to the role for which she is campaigning. The question came up because the secular world does not properly understand the wife-as-submissive doctrine. It’s one of many stereotypes and misunderstandings about the Christian community. It’s often thought of by the secular world as a wife being completely controlled in an oppressive way by her husband, like slavery. It was a perfect opportunity, which the politician took advantage of, to explain the Christian definition of a misunderstood concept.

 

Words and language are important. We are all missionaries in a land that we need to reach for Christ. We need to have understanding for those who don’t understand us. We need to have the patience to explain what we mean. And we need to remember that language could be the key to someone seeing God’s glory.

 

By Jennifer Armitage

Director of Community Outreach
Originally posted at Wesleyan Life Online