Missionaries to countries where another language is spoken must, inevitably, learn the language or languish in incredible ineffectiveness. In order to disciple people to and in Christ, you have to speak a language they understand.
So what do we do when the young adults, college students, and teenagers that we are trying to make disciples among don’t speak our language any more? How do we communicate when the people we’re ministering to don’t understand us?
Several years ago the National Study for Youth and Religion found that most teenagers (now young adults) are “incredibly inarticulate about their faith, their religious beliefs, and practices, and its meaning or place in their lives.” Not only do the majority of young adults not know how to express their faith, many also simply don’t speak the language of faith at all or are operating on vastly different definitions than most ministry leaders.
It’s not just young adults. The language of western culture is shifting increasingly away from the religious. Biblical literacy is swiftly decreasing, both within and without the church walls. How are we to communicate the gospel to those who don’t speak the language that the church has trained us to speak?
In Psalm 19 David writes;
The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech,
and night to night reveals knowledge.
(Psalm 19:1-2, ESV)
Somehow the skies are communicating God’s glory across cultural and language barriers without any problem. While many with decades of ministry experience are using language that’s increasingly insular and incomprehensible to the majority of millennials and the wider culture, creation is making moment-by-moment proclamation of the glory of God.
In their book Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath lay out a framework for communicating ideas in ways that gives them “sticking” power. The third principle they lay out as critical for stickiness is concreteness. They state that, “Trying to teach an abstract idea without concrete foundations is like trying to start a house by building a roof in the air.“ (115)
The problem with much of our evangelism and mission is that we start with abstract ideas that many have little to no concrete foundations for. What exactly does “saved” mean? Why should I care if Jesus “died as a sacrifice for my sins”? What exactly does justification mean? Does it even matter?
When the world around us has no foundation for the house of God, all our good works and gospel declarations fall on foreign ears.We need what the Heath brothers call concreteness. “Concreteness creates a ‘shared turf’ on which people can collaborate.” (123)
Jesus understands this and layers it with the truth stated by David in Psalm 19. Much of spiritual reality has a direct reflection in the physical world, and vice versa. Jesus knew that the people he spoke to couldn’t understand the raw truth of heavenly things – they didn’t know the language – so instead he leveraged the tangible world of creation to give concrete illustrations of how God’s kingdom worked. Jesus became a translator in both word and deed, communicating God’s truth to a people that otherwise wouldn’t have been able to understand.
In Mark 4:26-29 Jesus uses creation to illustrate the kingdom of God, saying, “‘This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground…” and going on through the process of the seed sprouting, growing, and harvesting. The physical, created object becomes a lens through which Jesus’ listeners can look and see a truth about the Kingdom. They had experienced seeds and harvest before. That was a foundation Jesus could build on.
In Matthew 7:24-27 Jesus tells a parable about two people; one who hears his word and obeys, another who hears and does nothing. Rather than speaking in abstraction and saying “You need to obey me or bad things will happen,” he uses creation as concrete illustration. The hearers are two people building houses. The person who hears and doesn’t obey is a fool who builds a house without a foundation. It gets washed away. The crowds are amazed at his teaching. They get it – at least some of it.
In Jesus’ parables creation does what it’s always done – declare the glory of God and pour forth knowledge.
When we speak with people who haven’t grown up in church and don’t know the language of Christendom, are we translating well? When we preach are we giving concrete illustrations or speaking in the ethereal realm of abstraction? Are we using creation for its purpose and giving people concrete pictures of what salvation, faith, and the kingdom of God look like?
Creation is on mission. God shaped every inch of this universe and this world to proclaim him. Let’s learn how to use it as a tool for translating truth into a language that even those who have no training in the language of Christianity. As Dean writes, “If Christianity is to negotiate the dominant culture’s vision of reality – which is, after all, the one most teenagers [and young adults] share – then we must become fluent in the language of empire while articulating and enacting Christian desires.”
If we want to reach young adults today, we must speak a language they understand. Let’s take the cue from Jesus and use creation to that end. Let’s use the glory of the stars in the heavens, the changing of the seasons, and even the love of a man for a woman to communicate the gospel in a language that others can understand. As we do so, may the seeds we sow and stories we tell bear rich fruit for salvation!