Have you ever tried to talk to someone who doesn’t speak your language? Several years ago, I was on a crowded train in southern Spain. The man standing six inches from me had something pressing to say.
“Sprechen Sie Deutsch?” he asked.
I said, “No. English?”
“No,” he responded. “Parlez-vous français?”
“No,” I replied. I speak a little bit of Spanish, so I took one more shot. “¿Hablas español?”
“No,” he answered. “Italiano?”
In a matter of seconds, we riffled through five languages, searching for a common channel to communicate, but it wasn’t on the dial. Finally, with great frustration in his eyes, he shrugged his shoulders and gave up. For the rest of the ride, we stood next to each other in silence. I still wonder what he so urgently wanted to tell me. (I was probably standing on his foot.)
Maybe you know what it’s like to have something vitally important to say, but the other person simply doesn’t speak your language. If you are a Christian in America, you know this experience all too well. The moment you introduce the topic of faith, you will likely be standing next to someone who has no vocabulary for the conversation.
In recent years, we have entered a new era in the West. Christians are now missionaries in their own backyard. Those of us who follow Christ must assume that people in our office, school, worksite, neighborhood, and even our home don’t speak the language of faith. If we want to communicate with them, the good news must be reborn in the everyday words of twenty-first-century culture.
Christians sometimes forget that when Jesus spoke, the common people heard him gladly.1 He knew how to speak their language. Not everyone does.
It certainly didn’t come naturally to John Wesley. John grew up a pastor’s kid. Both his father Samuel and mother Susanna were bright, well-educated, and insatiable learners. From a tender age, John absorbed the vocabulary of faith. He later became an Oxford scholar deeply steeped in the Christian tradition and a priest in the Church of England. Yet his burning passion over six decades of ministry was to communicate the gospel to the masses—most of whom were illiterate. To do so, he left behind the language of the academy. “I design plain truth for plain people,” he said. “I labour to avoid all words which are not easy to be understood, all which are not used in common life.”2
Although Wesley’s ability to connect with everyday people became legendary, it was the result of a concerted effort. Tired of confused looks when he preached, one day he read one of his sermons to a maidservant and asked her to interrupt him each time she didn’t understand. Wesley was shocked by the number of times Betsy said, “Stop, sir.” All his education had created a barrier to sharing Christ with ordinary people. He resolved at that point to replace long words with short ones until people could understand his every word.3
Maybe Wesley was on to something. How do you learn the language of the people these days? Watch some TV. Listen to the number one radio station in your area. Go to the movie everyone’s talking about. Read some magazines at the grocery store checkout. Talk to a teenager. My seventeen-year-old daughter is more than happy to tell me when I am using words she doesn’t understand or phrases that have passed their expiration date. (“Dad, really?!”) If you don’t have a teenager in your house, rent one. Take two or three of them out to eat and let them tell you what life looks like through their eyes. As you listen, you may discover the best way to speak their language.
Of course, this sounds a bit simplistic, and some may wonder if it’s really that important to use the everyday words of our culture when sharing our faith. It was for Jesus. He left behind the language of heaven to learn common Aramaic and Hebrew. He wanted to meet people where they were and share the good news of God’s love in the language they dreamed in. We can do that, too. Our message is far too urgent to be lost in translation.
An Excerpt from the book: Meet The Goodpeople: Wesley’s 7 Ways to Share Faith
Roger Ross has served local churches from Texas to the British Channel Island of Guernsey to his home state of Illinois, where he’s been involved in starting two new churches. Ross currently serves as senior pastor of First United Methodist Church, a large and vibrant congregation in Springfield, Illinois. He has contributed to several publications and journals.
About the Book:
Meet the Goodpeople helps church leaders reach the growing number of “nones” in their communities. Roger Ross offers seven practical strategies that church leaders can immediately grasp and implement. These strategies are shown to work, equipping congregants to share their faith, leading others into a transforming relationship with Jesus and his church. Ross derives these strategies from John Wesley’s own ministry. A free downloadable guide for leadership teams and small groups is available at http://www.MeetTheGoodpeople.com.
- Mark 12:37 KJV.
- John Wesley, Preface to Sermons on Several Occasions (1746), in Sermons I: 1–33, ed. Albert C. Outler, vol. 1 of The Bicentennial Edition of the Works of John Wesley (Nashville: Abingdon, 1984), 104.
- John Bishop, “John Wesley: Plain Truth for Plain People,” Preaching, May 1, 1987, http://www.preaching.com/resources/past-masters/11566916/.