The world is full of languages. I speak English and can get by in French, but that’s about it. With English increasingly becoming the dominant international language I may not need to learn many other languages. But learning a new language is a good thing, opening up all sorts of new possibilities for travel and communication – as my wife Sam is discovering as she goes week by week to her Spanish classes.
What about Jesus? We know he spoke Hebrew and Aramaic – because that was the language of the people around him. He may possibly have spoken a little Greek and maybe even some Latin – again, because that was also the language of some of the people around him.
So what is the language of people around you? If you’re reading this in the UK, it’s probably English, but language is actually much more complex these days because communication today is so much faster than in the past. That means culture changes more quickly, and so with it language changes too. As a result, even when we speak what we think is clear English to people, we may not always be communicating in a language that communicates well to them.
This is a massive issue when it comes to sharing faith, because we believe that Jesus Christ has given us a good news message that we must communicate. But we may not be communicating in a way or in a language that people really grasp and understand.
Romans 10:14 says, of those who don’t know Christ,
‘how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard?
And how can they hear without someone preaching (communicating) with them?’
That means we need to ask some searching questions, like:
– when we’re talking about the things of faith, do they communicate?
– when we speak of God: of Father, Son and Spirit, do people know what we’re talking about?
– when we speak of church, or of becoming a follower of Jesus, or of prayer, or of the things God has done in our lives, do people find it resonating with them?
You might have heard of the word Spanglish. It’s the name of a 2004 movie starting Adam Sandler and Paz Vega, about the blend of Spanish and English language and culture in the US. But more importantly Spanglish describes a blend of the Spanish and English languages which is actually spoken in some border places. So Spanglish is spoken by Hispanics in the USA and by British in Argentina. It’s not a unified language, so it sounds different in different places. But it is a form of language that communicates in some parts of the world. Purists don’t like it, but it works. It helps people communicate, and that’s what matters. Clear communication.
I wonder whether some of us need to learn a UK form of Spanglish – so we can communicate in York and in the North. To the youth. To the Muslims. To the various subcultures.
Interestingly, one difference between Christianity and Islam is that the Christian faith teaches that the Holy Spirit speaks through the medium of a variety of human languages. So whilst Muslims believe that Arabic – the original language of the Koran – is the true holy language, followers of Jesus don’t think that of Hebrew or Greek – the original language of the Old and New Testaments. Christians think it’s good and fine to translate the Scriptures into local languages, in order to communicate, as long as the translation is as accurate as possible. Indeed, as globalisation increases many local languages have only been preserved thanks to Christian bible translators who have taken the time to carefully learn the language and then translate the bible appropriately.
Christians believe in the priority of translation God became one of us in Jesus Christ. That’s at the heart of our Christmas celebrations. The beginning of John’s gospel tells us that Christ is ‘the Word’ – God’s ‘Message’ and (as we’ve seen) he came to earth and spoke the language of the people around him. He became one of us, so that they would clearly understand and follow.
This raises some good questions for us at The Belfrey. Do we need to engage in some clearer communication? In all our communication – verbal, visual, digital, etc.. Matt Seymour has done a great job in bringing us a new website, but there’s always more to do. Because we always need to keep the communication fresh and clear.
The larger the organisation, the more you need to be clear and consistent about the words you use. That’s why we’ve been trying to work hard at the language we use. So our services are now called congregations – because a service is something you come to, whilst a congregation is something to which you belong. Our midweek gatherings are called Belfrey Groups, and not small groups, fellowship groups, cells, house groups, etc..
This raises an interesting question about the name of our church fellowship. I have to admit I find it difficult when people call us by different names, for instance: St Michael le Belfrey, St Michael’s, St Mike’s, SMLB, The Belfrey – and probably more. Whist our main church building will always be ‘St Michael le Belfrey’ we need to find a consistent name for us as a people/fellowship. I suspect that we will need to nail this one during 2012. Because clarity of language is important if we really want to communicate well.
What about you? Do you need to engage in some clearer communication? At home? With your spouse? With your family? At work? I want to encourage you to take care over your words. Over your emails. Over your conversations. St Paul, tells us that when communicating we should ‘speak the truth in love’ (Eph 4:15), and that our conversations should be ‘seasoned with salt’ (Col 4:6) – which means they should bring flavour and stop decay.
As a New Year approaches, what about giving God a fresh way of speaking to you, perhaps by reading a different translation of the bible? I’ve recently reading Philippians in The Message – and found it profoundly refreshing.
All this isn’t about being cool or trendy. It’s simply about communication. Because communication is important. And communication is 2-way. It involves not just telling, but also listening. Carefully listening. I have a friend who asked an architect to help him build a new house. As part of the brief he told the architect that he wanted a home where people could be listened to. I like that. (Oh, and the architecture of the house, now it’s built, really works!)
For the follower of Jesus to effectively communicate their faith, they need to be listening – to people, and culture. Reading, watching and observing. That’s why John Stott used to say that the Christian should have the bible in one hand, and a newspaper in the other – which basically means they should be listening to God, and listening to the world.
During the Second World War the British government printed a propaganda poster telling people to take care what they said, and who to, for fear of spies. You may have seen it. It famously read: Careless talk costs lives. The bible says we are in a battle. Not against people, but against the forces of darkness (Eph 6:11). We are waging a battle against the enemy, for souls. Souls for the kingdom of God. If we take care about our talk and communication, who knows how many lives we might save? Conversely, if we are careless, then many may be lost.
So in every area of life, let’s take care with our language. Used well, our words can change lives.