Have you ever picked up a textbook or magazine article or read something online and realized you had no idea what it was saying? Maybe it was the big words being used or the inside story that you weren’t a part of that caused you to close the link, put down the magazine, or pull your hair out because you still had to read the textbook for a class.
I won’t even get into the number of science and math classes I sat through with this same feeling…
I will tell you the truth, just this last weekend in church I had to pull up dictionary.com on my phone to figure out the definition to a word someone used.
Every once in a while, my wife, a physical therapist, will get us into a conversation with another physical therapist about physical therapy. After 15 seconds, I am checked out, yawning, dying a slow and painful death and looking for any other thing in the world I can engage in besides the conversation going on around me. The problem? Language I don’t understand creates roadblocks in the conversation.
A lot of research went into analyzing Donald Trump’s effectiveness in communicating during his 2016 presidential election campaign. If you have an advanced education, you probably found yourself more intrigued by other candidates who spoke in a way that caused you to think and challenged your intellect. Research shows Donald Trump consistently, and probably purposefully, communicated at the level of a third grader. Like it or not, it worked. He used short phrases and emphasized powerful terminology related to people’s feelings. You can say what you want about it but today he is president of the United States.
In every relationship I have including my relationship with my wife, my staff, my church, and others, I purposefully try to use language that leads rather than language that hinders or blocks. Hindering language makes us feel intellectual or even spiritual, but the reality is that it blocks other people out of the conversation.
Let me give you an example. Let’s say I’m preaching a message about what Jesus has done for us to a group of people that know very little about the Bible. Look at these two different ways to say things:
- Language that Hinders: “Jesus was God incarnate, the firstborn of all creation. He was born of the virgin Mary, lived a sinless life, died by crucifixion, and was resurrected from the grave so you and I could be saved, sanctified, justified, redeemed, and reconciled. And now he is our Advocate and is seated at the right hand of the Father.”
- Language that Leads: “Jesus came to earth as God in the flesh. Because he was God, he existed before the creation you and I know and see. His mom was Mary, who was a virgin. That’s why his birth was so miraculous. Jesus lived a perfect life, always obeying God. He died by being nailed to a cross for something he did not do or deserve. Three days later he rose from the dead after his body had been laid in a tomb. Because Jesus overcame death, you and I can have our imperfections and wrongdoings forgiven and can have a relationship with God again. This relationship causes us to become like Jesus, to live just as if we had never messed up and with value knowing God bought our forgiveness by giving us his son Jesus. Today, Jesus is seated at God’s right hand in heaven and is continually praying for us and serving as the lawyer who proves we have been made right with God again.
We avoid language that leads because it takes a lot more explanation.
At times, we have to surrender content for effective communication.
People need to hear us say less in a more clear way.
Leaders don’t have to give hours and hours to meetings, they just need to be clear and concise.
Churches don’t need an 8-week course about all their ministries and policies, they need a clear vision.
If we are serious about this, it changes the translation of the Bible we preach from.
It changes the songs we sing.
It changes what we call the rooms in our churches.
It changes the words we say from the stage.
If I put myself in the shoes of someone who has never been to church before—which is the person you are supposed to be reaching and forming your ministry around (which is why Jesus kept moving around to new places to reach new people rather than just sitting still with his current followers)—then there are a lot of words that well-churched people use that I probably don’t understand.
Can we talk about that?
- Sanctuary (But why not auditorium?)
- Charity (Because the Bible uses it to talk about love and we use it to talk about a non-profit.)
- Great Commission (Am I the only one that sees images of Gandalf sending an elf, dwarf and some hobbits on an adventure?)
- Bulwark (Do we even have these anymore?)
- Parish (Jesus came so none would “parish”.)
- Fellowship (The battleship, the flagship, the steamship and the fellowship.)
- Congregation (OR crowd, gathering, audience, family)
- Foyer (Just go with lobby.)
And the list goes on…
The point is not that you have to change all your language. The point is that you need to contextualize everything you say.
I recently heard a story about a woman who was attending our church during the Christmas season. During my message about the birth of Jesus, at the moment I mentioned Mary, she leaned over to a friend and said, “So, Mary was the mother of Jesus?”
Let’s not take for granted that just because people are in our churches means they have a certain degree of biblical understanding or spiritual insight.
The first command Jesus gave Peter after his denial but before he sent him out to build the church?
“Feed my lambs.” In other words, take care of those that are young in their understanding.
Give people language that leads to a deeper understanding and relationship with Jesus.