Speaking My Language

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Many times over the last few months, I've found myself looked down at a screaming and crying baby, and thought to myself, "What on earth do you want?" It is in fact an almost daily occurrence… It's a moment in which I find myself wishing that I could converse with them, even at this young age, and simply ask what is going on, what is wrong, what can I do to help...

And then, when I try to put myself in their shoes, and try to look at things from their perspective with their rationality and development, I think, how terribly frustrating it must be to constantly be misunderstood, constantly unable to communicate your feelings and wishes. How alienating is it to be surrounded by friends and family, and yet still be incapable of understanding and engaging?

I wonder who is more frustrated. Me or them? It's probably them…

Actually this kind of frustration isn't even limited to those first months of life. It's really something we experience throughout our lives. It's the difficulty of communicating, of real understanding and real empathy that comes up in all our relationships, whether they are intimate, familial, friendly, or professional.

We've all been there haven't we? Where we are chatting happily with a colleague or friend or neighbour and in some strange twist the topic of our faith in Jesus comes up. We hold our breaths. We know that this could abruptly end the conversation. But it doesn't, and our hearts begin to thud. Could this be? Could this be the opportunity we've been waiting for, to share the gospel with someone we know?

And with much trepidation we go for it. We talk of sin and death and of Jesus. We talk of a cross and of resurrection and of hope. We say salvation is available, reconciliation is possible, and that we can have a relationship with God.

Then we look up and we see a faint smile, a flat nod. It's pleasant but dismissive. This gospel presentation of ours has fallen flat, and there is no effect. Frustration. Why didn't it work? How is it so impotent? It can't be the message, perhaps it was the presentation. Was it too technical? Was something missing? Am I the problem?

Perhaps we are simply not speaking the same language. English yes, but perhaps there is more to communicating the gospel to those around us than simply saying the right words.

In Acts 17:16-34, Paul is preaching the gospel in Athens and it is a setting that is ripe with culture. We're given an insight into the Athenian worldview with references to the prevalence of idols, their philosophical heritage as well as their interest in spiritual things. And it is in this background that Paul speaks in a profoundly sensitive way. His 'gospel presentation' doesn't carry all the elements of the gospel that we are used to, but instead pitches the message of Christ in a way that speaks to their heart. It is not that those details that are 'missing' aren't important or aren't true, but that the gospel should be conveyed as something that answers our deepest needs and desires.

Paul listened and understood the conversations that the Athenians were themselves having, and helped them see how the gospel applied to them. He did not speak of Old Testament fulfilment, as he does when speaking to Jews (e.g. Acts 13:13-41; 17:1-4), but speaks their language, showing them how the gospel allows the one true God to be knowable and accessible.

Similarly, our efforts to share the gospel need to be sensitive and understanding of the worldview of those we live with. It means we have to listen and understand, not just the gospel, but the people we want to speak it to. We have to learn to share our stories, and dialogue through them, rather than make presentations that are exclusively based on our views and expectations.

We have to meet people where they are at, rather than demanding that they come to us. We have to help people see that there is something that can meet their needs, rather than expecting them to come around on things that only address ours. In the end, what we really have to do is see that our evangelism and engagement with others is an exercise in love, where we present the truth for all that it is but do so in a way that serves them and puts their needs first.

Perhaps too often our mentality is one of winning. We want to be able to defeat the arguments of our detractors and be proven right. And sometimes we even feel that we have fallen short of the task if there was no conversion. We feel that it is based on the strength (or weakness) of our arguments that a person accepts (or rejects) the gospel.

The reality though is that we aren't the ones that make a person believe. God is. He uses what we have, with all our shortcomings and inadequacies and brings people to faith. He does the miracle that we cannot and changes people in their heart. And so our task is not to win, or to force, or to compel. It is to simply bear witness, with honesty, sensitivity and empathy.  

The next time you are faced with the prospect of sharing your faith, ask yourself, whose language are you speaking?

Some questions to consider:

  1. How well do you listen to their stories?
  2. What are the felt needs of the culture of those around you? How does Jesus provide a solution to them?
  3. What terms and ideas are you using for your Christian experience that don't carry the same meaning for others?