We were in the Memphis airport, on the last leg of a return trip from Sharon’s hometown of Zuni, Virginia (in the Norfolk area). I was standing around the gate, guarding everyone’s carry-ons while the ladies made a quick pre-flight pit stop, when this young boy – about 6 or so, I suppose-came up to me and started talking to me as though he’d known me for all of his life. Kids do that sometimes, talking to strangers in the airport. I’ve heard tales of my daughter doing some of that when she was little, but if I tell them to you, she’d have to kill me.
This young man said something indecipherable about the airplane. I politely answered “Huh?” and he repeated himself, saying something about the airplane having warts. He repeated himself a few more times, and I steadily grew more confused as I tried to decode this kid’s thick Texas accent. Just when I thought I was starting to get it, his mother grabbed him by the belt and levitated him to safety. This persistent young man, however, still had a question that was unanswered, and proceeded to make that inquiry at a volume level that sent the airline employees scrambling for those headphone-like hearing protectors.
Finally, I understood what the kid was asking: “How does the airplane work?” His dad began to remind him about all that the pilot had told him on the previous flight, and managed to satisfy his six year old curiosity—at least for the moment.
Meanwhile, I was stunned. Usually, I’m the one who’s really good at accents. I can usually decipher an accent and be speaking in a close replica of that accent after a few minutes of conversation. I had a hard time believing that I couldn’t understand this 6-year old boy from San Antonio.
And then, it struck me. I had just spent the whole weekend in Zuni, Virginia—a place where the word “chair” is pronounced “chay-uh.” For the past several days, I had fine-tuned my ears to the Zuni accent, and I was trying to listen to this young boy from San Antonio through a “Zuni filter.” No wonder I couldn’t understand him! It was like taking an English-German dictionary to France and trying to use it translate what the locals were saying.
Which brings me to a thought about communicating the Gospel. It really doesn’t matter if your delivery is flawless, your technology is state-of-the-art, and your doctrine is pure as the driven snow, if the recipient can’t understand what you’re saying. Consider the language gaps between different English-speaking nations. I’ve seen misunderstandings between Britains and Americans that could have easily gotten out of hand and led to an international incident, all over differences in the meaning of a single word. The key here is in the word “communication,” which implies that the recipient of a message understands the meaning that the sender wanted to convey. It’s not enough to just “send out the message.” It must be sent out in terms that the recipient will understand.
Think about your next door neighbor, or that person you work with. If you wanted to tell them about your faith in Jesus Christ, could you tell them in terms that they’d understand, or would you need to give them a Christianese-English dictionary? Do they know what “transubstantiation” means? (Do YOU know what it means?) What images come to mind for them when you tell them about being “washed in the blood of Jesus” or “under the blood?” These familiar Christianese phrases, when not understood, could really paint a gross, unpleasant picture in the mind of an unchurched person who’s not entirely sure what we do inside our church buildings.
Jesus was a master of communication. He often used illustrations (parables) to drive home a point that He wanted to make to the listeners. His illustrations were from real life, in terms that the people could understand. To the average, suburban-dwelling American, Jesus’ image as “the good shepherd” conjures up images of paintings of Jesus and sheep. To the crowd that Jesus was speaking to (a crowd that probably included some shepherds), that illustration created images of a hard working, caring leader of the sheep, one who lived with them, protected them, called them all by name, and knew every single one of them intimately. Quite a difference, isn’t it?
Wherever you are today, as you speak of your relationship with Christ, be sure to do so in terms that your listeners will understand. Use words and phrases that have meaning with the person you’re speaking to. It’s not enough to “preach” the Gospel—if we’re to be effective witnesses for Christ, we must communicate the Gospel.