Have you ever had a conversation become lost in translation? There are many wonderful examples of miscommunication in the world of marketing. As companies try to communicate their brand internationally, it isn’t uncommon for campaigns to be received in unexpected ways. For example, when the American beer brand Coors tried to launch their “Turn it loose” campaign in Spain, they found out too late that the Spanish translation of their campaign title read as “Suffer from diarrhoea.” Similarly, when KFC launched their restaurant chain in China in the late 1980s, it was discovered the well known “Finger-lickin’ good” slogan translates as “Eat your fingers off” in Mandarin. Thankfully no-one took the gaff too seriously and now they are the top fast-food chain in China.
There are important lessons we can learn from these missteps, especially when we seek to share the message of Christianity. One of the main lessons is avoiding any assumption of shared knowledge. What we might understand to be a simple gospel message, may, in reality, contain completely new concepts for our audience. Early Christians understood this well as their ‘love feast’ (communion) was frequently misunderstood as either being the scene of an orgy or a cannibalistic ceremony, where the body of a dead man was eaten. I experienced something similar this past week. As I was teaching at a Christian Union someone asserted that it would be brave to face the judgment of God rather than have Jesus die in our place. It took nearly ten minutes to explain the concepts associated with words like sin, grace, and even justice. These words were empty of Christian content for this young man. It took real effort to find words that expressed God’s message to him.
The reality is that whereas in the past we could effortlessly speak of Christian ideas simply and meaningfully to non-Christians, today we perhaps need to understand our role as missionaries to a foreign culture. We live at a time where many people genuinely have no understanding of Christianity, let alone a concept of personal guilt, or even God in general. This means that what used to be called the ‘simple gospel’ is now immeasurably more complicated than we might appreciate. Society’s questions are different, as are their concerns, and as Christians, we have to learn how to communicate to the people in front of us if we want to avoid only talking to ourselves. At first the lack of Biblical literacy might seem depressing, however, we now have the opportunity to encounter individuals who have never rejected the Gospel and who might, at the very least, be open to hearing something new. The first step to rediscovering the ‘simple gospel’ is, much like international companies and indeed Paul at Athens (see Acts 17), to take the time to listen and learn before speaking to be genuinely heard.