Several years go, I had the privilege of spending a summer witnessing to a Vietnamese family that had moved into the neighborhood. Most of my conversations took place with a college-aged young man from the family. He had been raised in a Buddhist tradition and had only been in the States for a couple of years. Very early on in the discussion I discovered a significant difficulty in witnessing to this him: language. I don't mean that we spoke different languages in the sense that I spoke English and they spoke Vietnamese because most of them spoke very good English. I mean that there were entire concepts that were alien to them. Sin was literally a foreign concept. How do you convince someone that they need to be saved from sin when they don't understand what sin is or why it could cause lasting consequences? When you believe firmly that karmic balance is always possible, why would anyone ever need a savior? That summer I had to learn ways to communicate the Gospel in its most basic form and in terms that someone completely unfamiliar with Western Christianity would understand.
In 1 Corinthians 14, the Apostle Paul was discussing the roll of speaking in tongues in the church and he wrote, There are doubtless many different kinds of languages in the world, and all have meaning. Therefore, if I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be a foreigner to the speaker, and the speaker will be a foreigner to me (1Co 14:10-11, HCSB). Paul was specifically addressing the benefits of keeping that particular spiritual gift to yourself unless an interpreter was present but the statement also has larger implications pertaining to the example I used when witnessing to my Vietnamese neighbors.
More and more we live in a world where people do not understand the language we use when we witness. Words like "sin" and "saved" mean little in a world where people either believe everybody goes to Heaven or that your existence ends the moment you die. Forty years ago, the church still had the educational power that ensured nearly everyone new what "justification" and "atonement" meant, even if they didn't put much stock in those things. Today's society has grown up without those influences and educational experiences and we must learn to speak a new language. We must learn to step outside of the church cultures in which we operate and speak in a language that unchurched, unreached people understand. We must strive to understand the Gospel well enough that we can communicate it in its most basic form to those who have no reference for what we are saying. Who is Jesus? Why do we need Him? How do we follow Him? What difference will following Him make? If we cannot answer these questions in simple terms, we might as well be speaking a foreign language.