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Imitate Me: Missionary Methods of Sinners and Saints, Part Two


I realized something strange was happening as I sat with the two Mormon missionaries. As I tried to hear out their message, they were using many of the same religious words that I knew, but all of them had a new definition that assumed their own system of thinking. We were saying the same things with the same verbiage and sentence constructions, but we meant something completely different.

Assumed Worldviews and Miscommunication

There is no doubt that many terms have been muddied throughout the history of Mormonism. Christians meant one thing by “grace,” “atonement,” and “sin,” but Mormons came along intending something else. The Mormons I was talking to were a product of what was initiated long before they ended up in my living room. They were brought up in the Mormon faith from childhood, and they genuinely believed what they were saying. Even if their message was false, they were not necessarily the kind of false prophets Jesus warned about, wolves dressed like sheep, who intentionally lead others to their harm (Matthew 7:15). In large part, these Mormons were the casualties of those who went before them.

The point remains that there was a significant challenge to our communication. They even had glossaries in the back of their pamphlets, defining their terminology as it popped up in bold lettering throughout to minimize confusion. Nevertheless, there were numerous times where both parties fell back upon religious words—words which don’t share space with everyday speech—without restating their proper definition. We were left to assume our own meanings for every borrowed phrase.

Miscommunication isn’t limited between Christianity and other religions with Abrahamic backgrounds like Mormonism and Islam. If you enter into a spiritual conversation with Buddhists talking about “sin,” they will immediately import their understanding of an impersonal, mechanistic universe of karma and reincarnation. Try telling that them they have actually offended “God” without telling them which God, and they will commend you for not angering powerful spirits. Tacking Jesus onto the end will at best result in bemused curiosity. They might conclude with something like, “Well, we are both very religious. We both try our best at right living. Yes, we believe the same thing.” To your chagrin you will have communicated nothing significant.

We Must Not Obscure Our Message with Jargon

When we use pregnant shorthand, otherwise known as jargon, we assume our system of thinking without explaining it. Seminary students in particular have learned to say big words, even when we don’t fully understand them. I often experience the temptation to validate my educational investment by trying to sound smart. We should be wary, however, that what feels emotionally rewarding does not necessarily communicate well. In his classic On Writing Well, William Zinsser gave American pompousness a slap in the face:

“Still, plain talk will not be easily achieved in corporate America. Too much vanity is on the line. Managers at every level are prisoners of the notion that a simple style reflects a simple mind. Actually a simple style is the result of hard work and hard thinking; a muddled style reflects a muddled thinker or a person too arrogant, or too dumb, or too lazy to organize his thoughts” (174).

Ouch! Could it be that our overuse of specialized theological terms is also the result of negligence to explain ourselves or to think clearly? Ultimately, the language of the sent one must be the language of the everyday Christian, and the language of the everyday Christian must be the language of the everyday human being.

Am I suggesting that we should stop preaching about the substitutionary atonement and resurrection of Christ, in which he propitiated the Father’s wrath for the sin of the unjust, thus redeeming one new race, a royal priesthood, that they might receive this grace through faith alone and abide in the Son, enjoying him for eternity? Of course not. But this isn’t the best way to introduce Christianity to your new friend. We must build up their thinking by supplying spiritual milk before they will be ready to chomp on such meaty words.

We can use simple language to explain these same things. Explain that God created everything, so he is the king. Explain that our evil deeds are a rejection of God’s authority and an attempt at his throne. Explain that rather than smashing us for treason, God the Father sent and smashed his only Son in our place. This Son, Jesus, became alive again after his execution, having paid in full for our offense. When we trust and follow Jesus as our king, the Father adopts us as his sons and daughters. The Spirit is now at work in us with the same power that raised Jesus from the dead that we may live out pleasing lives in thankfulness to God. We gather together regularly as embassies of God’s new kingdom to build each other up in love. We await the day that our king will return to take us home with him forever.

It always takes a bit of effort and little more time to explain things in a simple way, but the payoff is clarity. (And clarity is the goal because God rules over the heart response of the hearer.) Simplicity does not make the message simplistic. Rather, it is only when we work hard for simplicity and clarity, removing obscurity, that the complexities of our message become understandable.

We Must Not Obscure Our Message With Cookie Cutter Scripts

Speaking of obscurity, we are too often devoted to canned bits and pieces of the biblical narrative we memorized. We need more practice to think through and respond to individual people and situations we encounter. Otherwise, we are no different than the Mormons reading their pamphlets, and we have not learned to reason (Acts 17:2,17, 18:4, 26-28; 1 Peter 3:15).

I love Creation to Christ (C2C) stories and other modes of conveniently packaging a lot of disparate information from the Bible into a streamlined story. If you are learning language, this might be your only option to communicate at all. Stories, however, do not usually alleviate the necessity and hard work of explanation. We have to not only tailor our gospel presentations broadly to reach certain cultures, but also to each and every individual. Memorized gospel presentations are a starting point for delivering the good news and are helpful aids for keeping us on track, but let’s not stop there.

How can we do even better? God will save people through the dullest of instruments—he can raise up sons of Abraham from stones if need be; he can speak through mute donkeys. But we want to faithfully increase in our understanding. We should always be learning the message and rehearsing it to ourselves and others. Let’s chew on Scripture, knowing much more of it and knowing it better than could be told in a single or even several sittings. Tell it anew every time. Try incorporating relevant details as they affect your life at that very moment, and pray to the Spirit to bring these details to the forefront of your mind. Lord, please let us love you with even our reason instead of turning ourselves into living audio recordings.

Photo source material: Unsplash

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