A good friend has recently become a Christian. As she and her then boyfriend (who has had a mixed experience of Christianity) came home from church one night, she bubbled over with excitement about the sermon: “Wasn’t it so great to be reminded of God’s grace?”
“No!” he burst out in frustration. “What does that even mean??”
“Jargon,” she told me later, “is one of the biggest turn-offs to new people at church.”
Christmas is coming, and Christmas often brings people to church who aren’t there each week. Some will be there for the first time; some will be there for their umpteenth Christmas service. Some will feel like a total fish-out-of-water and others will feel quite at home. Either way, the question is: will any of them have a clue what we are talking about?
I think, broadly speaking, you could divide Christmas church-goers into two groups: The first group are those who are not really familiar with ‘Christian words.’ When people use these special words, and everyone seems to just know what’s being said, it can feel very alienating. Worse, they effectively never hear the Christian message!
As tragic as that scenario is, the second group is in a much worse position: they hear the words, they have a shelf for the words, they can even use the words in a sentence, but they don’t really understand what’s being said. Jesus is risen… like a zombie; God is gracious… he has good manners, like the Queen; Jesus is some sort of shape shifter… he can be both God and God’s Son. These people can blend in okay, so they may not feel so alienated, and it seems they have heard the Christian message, so it’s much harder to realise the problem and help them.
In either case, we must be sure to deliver God’s word as clearly as we can. If we let jargon cloud the meaning for people, then how can they understand? We are just not speaking their language.
C. S. Lewis once wrote an essay on this very issue (though not limited to Christmas). It is called Christian Apologetics and I think it is very worthwhile reading the whole thing—though you will need to adjust to sixty-year-old English. In it, he says that Britain (in his case) has become as much a mission field as China (I suppose one of the foreignest-sounding places he could think of in 1945) and that, like China, if you wanted to have any impact you would need to learn the local lingo and get into the headspace of the locals. This is something he thinks the clergy in his neck of the woods are very bad at. So he gives them some practical tips, like a list of words and what these words mean to ‘normal’ Britons—not the same meaning as most clergy would assume. His conclusion is that “you must translate every bit of your Theology into the vernacular. This is troublesome and means you can say very little in half an hour, but it is essential.” Actually it reminds me of the times my husband has had to preach in a bilingual context: you have to write the sermon, then translate the sermon, then get a local to check it for meaning, then get told off by the local for missing a giant slab of stuff relevant to the local context, then re-jig the whole thing and get it checked again. Apart from how much time this takes, the real trick is finding a ‘local’ who loves and trusts you enough to tell you when they have no idea what you are talking about and make you repeat it until it makes sense to them. Most normal Aussies don’t like to make that kind of fuss; they just kind of go with the vibe and hope for the best.
And of course, the problem is actually bigger than messed-up vocabulary: as Lewis points out, and as is taught in all the best missionary schools, it’s not enough to correct vocabulary, you really do have to get into the worldview, the value system, the what-makes-me-and-the-rest-of-the-universe-tick, of the people you are talking to. This means you can’t just talk to them; you have to listen to them. For a long time. A really long time. The danger is in when you find yourself living in parallel to your neighbours, in close proximity but never really communicating. It’s not uncommon in Australia—at least in my part of Sydney—to live in the same street as someone for years and even decades, but to have spent the equivalent of about a week with them. To make it worse, it’s often a week full of “hello” and “goodbye”, and nothing much deeper than that.
I don’t think there is any shortcut; I think we just have to make time for people. I think we have to do it by being less busy—actually letting more things go and doing less. And making the things you do, the things they like doing, so you can do it with them. I don’t really want to make time for people—they have such boring hobbies, like going on Facebook and watching movies (not exciting hobbies like mine, I like gardening and reading old books. Ahem.) But then, if I love my neighbour, it would make sense not to avoid them—including my literal, physical neighbour.
I know different contexts have different challenges, but whatever it is for you, you’ve got to keep your ear to the ground and take the time to be a person who is open to others. Take every opportunity to find out what people think about God and the world, and how they make up their minds etc. One of the most fruitful conversations my husband has ever had with Jehovah’s Witnesses was when he invited them in for tea and genuinely asked what they believed. (I’m not sure if he knew at that time why they were regarded as heretics—there was learning on both sides!).
I thought about including Lewis’ vocabulary list, but I think even his modern translations are now out of date. What does your neighbour think of Christian jargon? I don’t know, you’ll have to ask them!! But what if that opens up a whole series of conversations? What if a year of such conversations meant you could explain the Christmas message ‘in the vernacular’, so that it really shone, piercing the dark in your neighbour’s heart?
(It might enlighten your own heart too—Lewis also says, “I have come to the conviction that if you cannot translate your thoughts into uneducated language, then your thoughts were confused.” How many of us regulars also don’t understand what we are talking about?!)
It would be a lot of work—like preparing the biggest Christmas feast ever! But God’s word clearly proclaimed? What a feast! Truly, preparing for Christmas really does take all year!