One of my favorite life experiences has been traveling with my father internationally. My dad has a way of relating that helps most people feel immediately connected to him. It is especially fun to watch him learn a few words from the local language and employ them to the hilt. He can get miles out of a short turn of phrase or simple “hello.” Like a communications alchemist, he can blend accented English, hand motions, local language and gibberish to get his point across. He is able to listen and respond long enough to get a basic idea of what people are saying back to him. At least, that’s what it seems like!
Part of the fun of communicating across cultures is discovering those places where a whole new world of meaning is uncovered. Our assumptions are thrown out the window. Our sense of meaning expands. As long as the miscommunication has not been too offensive, both parties can generally get a laugh out of it.
But miscommunication can also build walls. It can cause pain. It can create a sense of suspicion or even enmity when, in fact, there is nothing substantively separating two people.
In the March newsletter, I wrote about how Christianity swept through the ancient world because those believers were bridge-builders:
To reach this world, our fathers and mothers in the faith had to become bridge-builders! They not only had to cross bridges of space and time. They had to build bridges of understanding to reach people with very different worldviews. Those target populations, without clear communication, would not really have the framework even to understand the Gospel, much less embrace it.
The critical role of communication is baked right into the very word, “Gospel,” which literally means Good News.
As we seek to share the good news in our post-Christian context, we need to come to grips with something critical: While we might be using the same vocabulary as the world around us, they are probably using a radically different dictionary. In other words, the words we are using might not mean the same thing to us as they do to the people we are seeking to reach.
Here, we are not talking simply about “Christianese,” i.e., phrases unique to the Church. We all probably realize that phrases like “washed in the blood” or “hedge of protection” do not translate into normal conversations very well.
No, we need to realize that some of the words used by both believers and unbelievers have very different meanings. Words like “faith,” “truth,” “heaven,” “justice,” “tolerance,” “compassion,” and “authentic.” Chances are pretty good that when you use those words, you mean something different than folks who are fully immersed in a post-Christian worldview.
If we are being honest, there is a good chance that all of us have drifted from a fully biblical understanding of the words we use. After all, we live in this culture. We bathe in its airwaves and radio frequencies. We absorb its marketing and messages. There is no way we too have not begun to define critical concepts in the context of a post-Christian worldview, potentially distorting them along the way.
Over the next few articles, we are going to look at these words. They are good words. Important words. Powerful words. But they are words that need to be redeemed. What I mean is, these words need to be set free from some cultural baggage and understood with fresh insight. In each article, we will be highlighting a word, explaining what it probably means in a post-Christian context, seeing what Scripture has to say and exploring how we can use that word to build bridges of understanding to our lost family, friends and neighbors.
I am looking forward to this journey together!
Adam T. Barr (MDiv, ThM) serves as senior pastor at Peace Church near Grand Rapids Michigan. In addition to his work in the local church, Adam speaks and writes on Christianity and culture, helping followers of Jesus understand and apply God’s Word in an increasingly post-Christian society. His most recent book, Compassion Without Compromise, is available through Bethany House. Adam is also a contributing writer and adjunct teacher on the Organic Outreach International team.