Watch Your Language - Mentoring Letter October 2012

Greg explains why you need to find down-to-earth ways of communicating your convictions to others.

Here’s a simple communication tip that will make you much more effective as an ambassador for Christ: Watch your language.  

I don’t mean avoid vulgar or obscene vocabulary (I presume you’re already doing that). I mean something else.

Consider this. When you settle into your seat on an airplane, what does the flight attendant say over the intercom? She says, “Blah, blah, blah, blah.” Or so it sounds to seasoned travelers. Few pay attention to the “flight attendant noise.” They’ve heard it before and tune out.

Unless you fly, say, Southwest Airlines. Their clever lines are a break (and welcome relief) from the routine. You sit up and take notice.

In the same way, much of our lingo sounds like religious noise to outsiders. Terms like “faith,” “belief,” “the Bible,” “receive Jesus,” even “sin”—as important as it is to talk about it—fall on deaf ears. They’ve heard it before and tune out the “blah, blah, blah.”

Worse, Christian jargon can be misleading. This is especially true of the word “faith,” which suggests a kind of useful fantasy, a “blind,” “leap of” religious wishful thinking. Nothing like this is in view, of course, with the original biblical word, pistis. Still, it’s the way many people (including Christians) mistakenly perceive it.

To solve the lingo problem, I’ve made it a habit to find (and use) substitute words—synonyms for religious terminology—to brighten my conversation and improve my communication.

For example, instead of quoting “the Bible” or “the Word of God” (both easily dismissed), why not cite “Jesus of Nazareth,” or “those Jesus trained to communicate His message after Him” (the Apostles), or “the ancient Hebrew prophets”?  

These substitute phrases mean the same thing, but have a completely different feel. It’s much easier to dismiss a religious book than the words of respected religious figures.

When referring to the Gospels, try citing “the primary source historical documents for the life of Jesus of Nazareth.” That’s the way historians see them, after all.

Avoid the word “faith.” Substitute “trust” for the exercise of faith (“I have placed my trust in Jesus”)—which is the precise meaning of the original biblical term, anyway—and “convictions” for the content of faith (i.e., “These are my Christian convictions”). 

For the same reason, don't talk about your “beliefs.” It's too easy to misunderstand this word as a reference to mere beliefs, subjective “true for me” preferences. Rather say, “This is what I think is true,” or “These are my spiritual [not ‘religious’] convictions.”

“Non-Christians” or “unbelievers” are terms that can subtly communicate an “us vs. them” mentality. Instead, substitute the phrase “those who don’t share our views.”

I’ve even found myself avoiding the word “sin” lately, not out of timidity about the topic, but because the term doesn’t deliver anymore. Instead, I talk about our moral crimes against God, or our acts of rebellion or sedition against our Sovereign. By contrast, abandon “blown it” and “messed up.” They don’t capture the gravity of our offenses.

The word “forgiveness” still seems to have power, but sometimes substitutes like “pardon,” “clemency,” and “mercy” can put a fresh face on it.

Rest assured, there’s nothing wrong with using replacement words. Biblical translation is always a matter of choosing English synonyms for original Greek or Hebrew terms. The goal isn’t to soften the original meaning, but rather to make it more vivid and powerful.

Help yourself to my substitute words, or make your own list of synonyms. Try to find down-to-earth ways of communicating your convictions to others (notice I didn’t say “share your faith”) so they don’t tune you out. Simply put: Watch your language.

That’s my own rule every time I write, speak, or broadcast. I want the clearest, most compelling words I can find to resolve a difficulty or communicate the truth. All this with a single goal in mind—to help you be a more effective ambassador.

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Greg Koukl

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