I was at dinner with an older couple at an authentic Mexican restaurant near my house where most of the wait-staff is Spanish speaking. The meal they ordered came to the table and the scene that ensued was comedic.
As my elderly friend strained to explain his problem to a passing busboy (who did not speak a word of English), he began to enunciate each syllable with more volume and clarity:
“NOOOOO! I! ORDERED! STEAK! TACOS…” He continued, as if talking slowly and shouting his English was somehow going to magically transform the words into Spanish.
It reminded me of my trip to Peru as a young man and playing soccer with the children of a small village. They would laugh and smile and had so much to say that I was not equipped to understand. Or coffee with my “un-churched” friend from the east coast when an acquaintance of mine, a pastor, stopped on his way out. As the good Reverend spoke in church vernacular with words like “blessing” and “abundance” and “provisions,” my friend strained to understand him in the same way we pick out the few words we know while traveling abroad in non-English speaking territory.
My friend smiled over his coffee later and said, “So, what the heck was he talking about?”
One only need drive a short distance from the Bible belt of the American South before it becomes painfully obvious that Christianity has a language problem in the 21st century.
That’s right, in ways good and bad, most English speakers can no longer understand the antiqued lexicon (dubbed by some, “Church-eese”) we “religious-types” use to communicate Jesus’s story of redemption.
Unfortunately, most of the preachers I have listened to seem to think, like my friend at the Mexican restaurant, if they just shout the words of the Gospel LOUDER AND SLOWER it will somehow be understood… if they will just ENUNCIATE THE GOOD NEWS MORE CLEARLY… somehow it will resonate.
The truth we Christians need to get our minds around is that the only language people truly understand is their own.
The days of pretending that folks will find hope in churchy phrases made for marquees, billboards, or smiling televangelists have long since passed. The expectation that shouting the SCRIPTURES in the direction of popular culture is the equivalent of a well-casted Harry Potter spell needs to go the way of fantasy literature. The practice of simply handing out Bible’s like Rosetta Stone programs in hopes culture will get OUR language and “find their way” are quickly fading.
Language is ultimately relational and if we have no substantial relationships away from church, we won’t understand the words and the needs spoken in the big wide world outside of our small tribe of like-minded believers.
In SIMPLER TERMS, until we become committed to communicating the Gospel in a vocabulary that translates into the “English” of 21st century post-Christian culture, we might as well be shouting: “I. ORDERED. THE. STEAK. TACOS.”
We have to learn to speak the good news of the God of sacrificial love with relational and relevant expressions… otherwise, what the heck are we REALLY saying?