Every group of people has its own words and terminology to a certain extent, even if that’s just the in-jokes of a circle of friends. Islam has its own vocabulary of Hadiths and Qibla and the ‘Umma, and other religions have their own words which encapsulate the things they deem important.
Christianity is no exception, of course, but with the added twist that Christianity has been the dominant faith in the West for long enough that people think they understand what a lot of it means, and is actually practised by a small enough fraction of the population that what people think it means doesn’t always match the way we use the term.
A lot of this terminology is both inevitable and beneficial. If the word “trinity” did not exist, we would have to invent it, because there isn’t another word that would do instead. It’s also a lot easier and quicker to say “preaching the Gospel” than to say “telling people who don’t know God about the good news of getting to have a restored relationship with God through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ”.
It’s all too easy for us to slip into certain habits of mind, though, among them the idea that because we know what we’re talking about that therefore everyone does, and secondly a sort of sloppy thinking. We use our Christian terminology so frequently among ourselves that we actually forget everything that’s packaged up in the term. Or a term gets certain baggage (“evangelism” is the classic one for that) and we end up rejecting the idea because we don’t like the baggage.
I spent some time in Central Asia, ministering (there’s another example) among people who had had the opportunity to hear the good news about Jesus for about a decade.
They didn’t have any of their own native Christian vocabulary, and all of mine was in a different language. It makes you quite good at explaining what you actually mean when you can’t use a churchy word that you subconsciously think everyone ought to understand.
Without any metaphorical uses of the word “son” in a culture, for example, so that the only way the word is ever used is in naming physical offspring, it becomes unhelpful to insist on “Son of God” as a description of Jesus”. Jesus isn’t the son of God in the way that mythologically, Heracles was the son of Zeus.
Without the word “holy”, you have to use a different word, like “sacred”, or unpack the term every time you want to talk about the Holy Spirit.
And while “sacred” and “holy” cover a lot of the same ground, they aren’t quite the same, particularly when you’re talking about how the Bible uses the word.
This is why Bible translation is such a big deal. Just by using one word that’s not quite right, you can potentially skew the understanding of a whole culture.
That wasn’t precisely what I wanted to talk about, though. What I wanted to draw out was that as more and more people in the West (yes, even in America) have become unchurched, it’s become more and more vital that we as followers of Jesus know how to explain what we mean without using Christian words. As I was saying last time, we’re increasingly dealing with what are effectively Greek pagans, and they have no foundational understanding.
Rather than saying “we have all sinned and we need a Saviour”, which is fine if you know what “sin” is and what we’re being saved from, we might have to start explaining that we’ve all messed up and done things wrong. We might point out how doing things wrong and messing up breaks relationships on a human level. We’ve all met people who can’t be trusted, but unfortunately, we none of us can be trusted to do everything 100% right all the time.
Rather than talking about substitutionary atonement or the Blood of the Lamb, which are very meaningful once you understand them, we might have to start explaining how both God and other people are hurt when we do things wrong, and that because God loves people He doesn’t want that to happen. It must be stopped, but because He loves even those who are doing the wrong things (that’s you and me, in case you missed it), He can’t just zap everyone who does wrong with thunderbolts, and because He’s incorruptible even by His own desires, He won’t magic everyone into little robots that just do what they are programmed to. That to solve this dilemma He came up with a rescue plan involving dying Himself to put an end to the dark desire to do what we want to do rather than the good we ought to do, and that restoring relationship with Him means both agreeing with Him about the problem (remember, He’s the only one in the universe who is ultimately good and trustworthy) and gratefully accepting His solution.
It takes more words to say it that way, but the end result just might be something that a person who’s only had minimal exposure to Christian things might understand a bit.
You’ll notice that a lot of the time on this blog I try to avoid Christiany words: I’ll almost always use “good news about Jesus the Messiah” rather than “Gospel”, and I’ll usually circumlocute around “evangelism” and even sometimes “Christian” as well. I find that “follower of Jesus” describes what’s actually supposed to be going on a lot better than “Christian” does; “trusting God” communicates the heart of what faith really is better, sometimes, than “faith”, and “believer” is a lot closer to accurate than “Christian”, particularly when the latter has become so often claimed by all and sundry (especially in American politics) whether or not you actually act like you trust God.
It takes a lot more thought and effort to consistently talk like this (I’m hardly consistent myself), but it is worthwhile. After all, we aren’t supposed to be telling people about Jesus merely for our own benefit, as if it earns us points with God. The Good News is supposed to be good news – something that is for other people’s benefit. If we keep on talking in words that only we understand, we might as well be speaking Quenya. Or Parseltongue. Or Klingon. Star Trek technology notwithstanding, the Universal Translator does not exist. We have to actually speak understandable words.