My oldest daughter is very clever and creative. When she was six, she would often have conversations with her stuffed cat, Hershey. Eventually, she developed what she called “kitty language,” even writing down a series of symbols in one of her notebooks. It was cute… but it was also entirely incomprehensible.
Sometimes, we Christians seem like that to outsiders. We have our own special language, much of it derived from what we find in the Bible (though some of it comes from… well, I have no idea where). But there’s a problem: most people today don’t have any clue what’s in the Bible. Reading The Heart of Evangelism reminded me of this. Jerram Barrs writes:
The words that we hear every Sunday in most of our churches and that we use in our prayers are no longer part of the everyday language of our society. People simply do not talk about justification or sanctification, nor about redemption, salvation, or sin. Language that is precious to the Christian is an unfamiliar dialect to most people around us. This means that church as usual and sermons that don’t acknowledge this problem are difficult for our contemporaries to relate to, just as computer language is incomprehensible to many of us! (139)
When considering how to share Christ with others, this is incredibly important: We can’t assume pre-existing knowledge if we want to communicate the gospel clearly. There are some words that we can probably avoid using, to be sure, but what I never want to do is avoid a word like “sin,” for example. Instead, I want to explain it in a way that makes sense. That sin isn’t simply the “bad things” we do, but a problem within our being—a compulsion to pursue anything other than God as most desirable, and to reject him though he has made his existence plain to us through many means.
A lot to take in? Sure. But we have to help people see that there’s a lot packed into a tiny word like “sin,” if we want them to understand the problem they face. But when we fail to consider our context—when we fail to really acknowledge the biblical illiteracy of our culture (and, sadly, our churches)—we risk our words being seen as incomprehensible as my daughter’s made-up play language. And that just will not do.