Suppose a man takes a boat to travel halfway across the world in an effort to tell some people the good news about Jesus. He has studied the area where they live. He knows a great deal about their lifestyle and customs. And he knows that they've never heard the gospel. What he doesn’t know, however, is how to speak their language.
After several days of preaching (in English) to villagers with puzzled looks on their faces, the man packs up his things to return home. He’s a little discouraged by the complete lack of “decisions for Christ,” but he tries to cheer himself with the thought that he has faithfully preached the good news about Jesus to them. But has he really done so?
Kinda. Sorta. Not really. The man tried to preach about Jesus, but since he couldn’t speak the people’s language—and since they didn’t understand English—the man didn’t really communicate anything about Jesus to the people. They are just as ignorant of Christ as they were before the man came.
The moral of that story is not, “Learn to speak the native tongue when serving as a missionary.” That much should be obvious. Rather, the point is that we all see the significance of an audience’s ability to understand what we are saying. This is true even when both you and your hearers speak the same language. If you talk about the truth in a way that your hearers can’t understand, then you aren't really communicating the truth to them.
Know Your Hearers Well
One of the leading theologians of the last century put it like this, “Preaching is not exposition only, but communication, not just the exegesis of a text but the conveying of a God-given message to a living people who need to hear it” (John Stott, Between Two Worlds, 137).
Now, he was talking about the kind of preaching that occurs in a local church gathering, but his main point is true for all of us who want to talk with others about Jesus. We must know our hearers well. We must anticipate their most likely misunderstandings, talking in such a way that the gospel stands out clearly against the backdrop of the various errors of the culture in which we find ourselves.
For example, I remember hearing a story in seminary about a missionary in rural India. After befriending one of the men in the village, the missionary gave him The Jesus Film, a movie based on the teachings of the Gospel narratives. After a few days, the missionary bumped into the man in the marketplace. When he asked him what he thought of the film, the villager responded, “It was very good. I have placed the video of Jesus alongside my other gods.”
For a Hindu who believes in thousands and thousands of gods, Jesus was just one god among many. His incarnation was just another of the many incarnations of the god Vishnu. His death and resurrection were just another in a series of divine acts intended to bring salvation to faithful Hindus. The missionary did not communicate the gospel to that Hindu man, because he failed to consider how his message would be heard.
Jesus and His Hearers
Jesus himself understood this better than anyone. His own teachings are full of symbols and messages that spoke directly to the people of his day. Jesus knew exactly how his hearers would understand him, so he crafted his messages to fit the audience.
The most-well known example of this is perhaps the story of the prodigal son. Although we usually focus on the return of the rebellious son who ran away, Jesus concludes by focusing on the older son whose hardheartedness causes him to miss out on the party. Here’s the set up for Jesus’ parable: “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So Jesus told them this parable…” (Luke 15:1-3). Do you see what Jesus was doing? He tells a specific parable targeted right at his religious, hardhearted hearers who were mad that Jesus welcomed sinners and ate with them. Just imagine the looks on their faces when Jesus concluded the story by having the father welcome the rebellious son and throw him a feast, while the religious older brother is left outside of what the father is doing!
Jesus knew if he had only told the story about the prodigal son who ran away, his religious hearers would think, “Well, we haven’t rebelled like that. We’re better than him. Surely, God accepts us and will give us a reward.” But they were wrong. Their rebellion was of a different kind. They refused to see themselves as sinful and in need of the Father’s mercy, just as much as the openly rebellious son who ran away. In all their law-making and rule-keeping, they never supposed that they needed the grace of God.
Communication: Anticipation and Clarification
What this means for us is that when we tell others the good news about Jesus—the good news about the God who came into the world to conquer sin through death and conquer death through life for all who trust in him—we must try our best to anticipate how the message might sound to our hearers. Our goal is not merely to speak the truth, but to communicate the truth such that it is rightly heard and truly understood. That doesn’t mean that everyone will like what we have to say. But we ought to make sure that it's the real Jesus, and not a caricature of him, that others are rejecting.
In our conversations with others about Jesus we must be sure that we are clear about the meaning of very basic words. Don’t take anything for granted. Take the time to define words like “sin,” “faith,” “grace,” “love,” “salvation/saved,” and even “God.” A majority of people—even many who consider themselves Christians—don’t have a biblical understanding of these terms. So don't just spout off Bible verses, for they won’t make much sense to someone who doesn’t understand what those terms mean. (Just imagine trying to read Ephesians 2:4-9 without any of the words we’ve mentioned above.)
You might find it helpful to ask questions like the ones below:
“When I say the word ‘God’ what comes to mind? Who do you think God is? What is God like? Can God be known? Do you think that Jesus was/is God? How do you know any of these things?”
"When I say the word ‘sin’ what comes to mind? What do you think sin is? Might sin be more than just breaking rules? Do you think a loving God can let sin continue making a mess of his creation forever? Do you think it’s just for a judge to let a convicted criminal off the hook without some kind of judgment?”
“When I say the word ‘salvation’ what comes to mind? What do you think salvation is? What if I told you that salvation involves more than just forgiveness and heaven? How do you think people are saved? Do you think that you are saved? How do you know for sure?”
“When I say the word ‘grace’ what comes to mind? What do you think grace is? Can we earn grace? If yes, how? If not, what decides where saving grace is applied and where it isn’t? Do you believe that you have received God’s grace? How can you know for sure?”
“When I say the word ‘faith’ what comes to mind? What do you think faith is? The Bible makes a clear distinction between ‘dead faith’ and ‘saving faith’—what’s the difference? The Bible says that even the demons believe that Jesus is God’s Son and the savior of the world—what makes your faith different than theirs?”
“When I say the word ‘love’ as in, ‘Jesus loves you,’ what comes to mind? What do you think that kind of love means? Do you think it’s possible for God to love and punish someone at the same time? (If it’s possible for parents, why not God?) Do you think that God loves you? If no, why not? If yes, why? How can you know for sure?”
Never forget that the power to change belief lies not in your persuasion, but in the gospel itself (Rom. 1:16). As the Scriptures say, “faith comes through hearing the message about Christ” (Rom. 10:17). Of course, the Scriptures also say that the message has to be understood (Neh. 8:8). That means your job is to make the gospel understandable. Leave the rest up to the Spirit. He’s really good at what he does.
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.