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Evangelism Formation: The Gospel—Found in Translation

When our evangelism is lost in translation, it might be time to consider how we can cross the communication divide?
Evangelism Formation: The Gospel—Found in Translation
Image: Photo by Helena Lopes on Unsplash

UK tourists have a pretty terrible reputation when it comes to our behaviour in other countries. “Brits abroad” are often stereotyped not only as the ones most likely to drop litter and binge drink, but also who expect others to speak our language.

When met with a non-English speaker, “Brits abroad” tend to resort to one of two methods of communication, neither of which involves making an effort to learn the native language.

Method one is to speak more intensely, carefully enunciating ev-er-y syll-a-ble. Method two is to speak MORE LOUDLY, as though it were the faculty of hearing, not the linguistic education of the listener that were lacking.

If neither method achieves the desired result, “Brits abroad” tend to walk away with a dismissive shrug whilst, ironically, complaining about the other person’s rudeness in not learning our language.

Sometimes, the church adopts a similar attitude to evangelism.

Christians often behave as if the world were our own colonial empire, and the natives should be reasonably expected to understand and speak our language.

But words commonly used in our church signage, our evangelistic preaching, and our evangelistic resources often fail to convey the meaning we assume or meet with the comprehension and conversion figures we expect. Our messages are too frequently recycled from previous generations when the church could rely on a different cultural authority and a wider familiarity with the Bible and Christianity.

When they are met only with blank or confused expressions, we often believe that if we just shout the message more loudly or repeat it more intensely, then surely we should be heard and understood. If, finally, those efforts do not pay off, I have heard some Christians, not unlike those classic misunderstood “Brits abroad,” bemoan the culture’s inability to speak our language.

When our evangelism is lost in translation, it might be time to consider how we can cross the communication divide? Is it time for us to study the languages of our cultures and work out how to express the gospel to those to whom Christianity appears as gibberish?

In the pursuit of new models of genuine conversation, a good starting point is the life and ministry of Jesus. It is here we see two complementary ways of translating the truth of the gospel into the power to change lives.

First, Jesus employs creative contextualisation. Second, he adopts an authentic altruism. Let’s look at each in turn and see how, if applied today, our gospel still has the potential to be heard and understood.

Creative Contextualisation

I have lost count of the times I have heard the phrases: “Get Brexit Done” and “Make America Great Again.” Jesus was not like our modern-day politicians who can always be counted on to repeat and repeat their mantra of the moment. He never made the gospel feel like vapid sloganeering or a tired stump speech or a cliché-ridden sales pitch.

In fact, reading the New Testament, I am constantly surprised by the diversity of ways that Jesus and the early church found to express the gospel message.

Jesus could stand beside a well and talk about “living water” one moment, and the next explain what it means to be “born again” or liken the gospel to “treasure hidden in a field,” depending on where he was and who he was talking to.

He used the language of his first century listeners who were all too familiar with the importance of pruning vines, or separating sheep, or harvesting the fields, or losing a precious coin.

There is beauty, creativity, variety, and care taken in Jesus’ evangelism. These efforts connect not only with the context of the individual listener, but also reflect something of the beautiful diversity and complexity of the gospel.

In contrast, in a bid to make evangelism easier, we have taught generations of Christians a fixed ‘one-size-fits-all’ bullet-point gospel-lite message.

Although this might seem like a very efficient way of working, it fails both to represent the fullness of the gospel, and to recognise the uniqueness of each listener. Christians know from their lived experience that a bullet-point gospel is not up to the task of providing the life-giving sustenance needed for the life of faith.

Instead of boosting our confidence to share the gospel, it is instead undermined by any attempt to shrink our evangelism into bite size formulae.

The best evangelism I have seen is when Christians are given the freedom and confidence to help people explore the beauty and wonder of the gospel narrative in a variety of different contexts.

When we realise that the whole life, teaching, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus are all part of the myth-busting, darkness-defeating, life-giving, hope-filling gospel, then it becomes ever more compelling to find ways of communicating this to our neighbours.

One example of this kind of approach that is finding increasing traction in the UK university scene is something called the Mark Drama.

Typically, Christian students take a week to learn, memorise, and perform the entirety of Mark’s Gospel as a 90-minute theatre production on their campuses. Their friends come and see the stage play, which takes place in the round and often interactively with the audience.

This approach has been surprisingly incredibly successful on two fronts. Christian students are becoming immersed in the story of the gospel, thus breaking free of the bare-bone bullet-form straight-jacket presentations and as they are helped to translate the narrative into a familiar yet foreign context, they develop good practice in relevant gospel communication.

Apart from the incredible resilience and depth of understanding that are being built into the Christian students who participate, there is also enormous benefit to the audience. They are exposed not just to a series of logical statements, or the odd sound bites, but the full grand sweep of Jesus’ life, teaching, death and resurrection.

They see something of the creativity, variety and beauty of the gospel, hear something of the truth and breadth of the gospel, and grasp something of how this narrative inspires hope, dedication and creativity in their peers.

Authentic Altruism

In an age of fake news, where even political conservatives are challenging the nature of truth and talk is cheap, evangelism has to be more than mere words.

But evangelism has too often portrayed by the church as simply the verbal proclamation of the gospel, without the embodiment of that message. This is a most ironic contradiction, as the gospels tell the story of the incarnation. Jesus, the Word of God, did not just come to earth to speak, but to live amongst us as the Light of the world. A disembodied evangelism is not Jesus’ evangelism.

This is how Paul described Jesus’ evangelism:

You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, announcing the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. You know what has happened throughout the province of Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached— how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him. (Acts 10:37-38)

And Jesus’ own instruction to his disciples is: “Let you light shine before men that they may see your good deeds and praise your father in heaven” (Matt. 5:16).

A gospel based only on deeds will not help audiences to grasp the truth of the message; just as a gospel that is restricted to words only will also become lost in translation. We need to communicate in a language which integrates words and deeds, evangelism and justice, speaking out and living out the gospel.

One innovative example in the UK seeking to find a language that tells and shows the gospel to the poorest in the country is the charity Christians Against Poverty (CAP).

Set up in 1995 to help those struggling with debt and poverty in the UK, their debt centres are run by Christians in partnership with local churches. They are very clear and open about their Christian identity and yet they receive widespread recognition in the secular media because their debt advice and support is second to none.

In 2018, their 300 debt centres helped 2575 of their clients to become debt-free. On top of this, 633 people found work through one of CAP’s job clubs, and some 885 people made a response to the gospel as a direct result of their connection with the charity.

CAP centres provide a front door for many people who would not otherwise engage with a church to find help for their practical and financial needs. Although there are no strings or conditions attached to a CAP client’s help, and counselling and care is offered in an unbiased way, CAPs deliberate openness about their Christian identity has led to many authentic conversations about Jesus.

If the church were to recapture a greater degree of authentic altruism alongside creative contextualisation, following Jesus’ example, I believe we would find our gospel communication would become much more intelligible to the world around us.

It is time to lose the disembodied bullet-point message and recover the full-blooded whole-hearted biblical Christianity. Found in translation, this gospel could change the world.

Dr. Krish Kandiah is the author of God is Stranger: Finding God in Unexpected Places and is teaching a summer class on the Shine Like Stars: The Lost Art of Christian Witness at Regent College Vancouver this summer. http://rgnt.net/shinelikestars

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Evangelism Formation: The Gospel—Found in Translation