When I tell you that I love Jesus, what am I assuming of you? Well, I am assuming that you know who I am, or at least that you recognise that there is an “I” about which this statement can be true; I am assuming that you know what “love” is, and I am assuming that you know who “Jesus” is.
It’s all a part of a big language game.
Language plays a massive role in evangelisation. Through Christ, the Church has been given a mission of spreading and communicating the Good News to others. And our language will be one of the greatest resources you have in sharing your faith with others.
So how does language work? At face value, it all seems pretty clear cut, we talk – they listen – they understand, but recently this video turned up on BuzzFeed looking at “Christian slang” and it raises some important questions about how we evangelise, and how we use language.
(Yes, I hadn’t heard of any of those phrases either.)
Evangelization is about bringing others to know Christ. But this video helps us to see that there can often be a void that exists between some of the language and terms that we may use, and that language which is understandable to someone else. There can be a difficulty that can arise in interpreting another’s words and this can create a disconnect between what is being said, and what is being understood.
Wittgenstein – an influential philosopher of language – highlighted the importance of the context in which utterances are made as being able to confer meaning. He famously said that “If a lion could talk, we could not understand him.” This is because the world of a lion is so incredibly different from our own; in Wittgenstein’s own words, we don’t share the same ‘form of life’ as the lion. (I study Philosophy of Language… he might not be so famous in other circles.)
So what does this mean to us as Christians? How does this difference in context between a Christian and a non-christian, and the difference in language that will also arise, affect our mission of evangelization?
1. Making language appropriate.
The language we use when we speak with others about Christ has to be appropriate to the audience that we are addressing. And, in our own individual social contexts, this language will enable us to very specifically reach out to those who surround us.
In Evangelii Nuntiandi it says just this,
“Evangelisation loses much of its force and effectiveness if it does not take into consideration the actual people to whom it addresses, if it does not use their language, their signs and symbols, if it does not answer the questions they ask.” – EN: 63.
In seeking to bring others closer to Christ, we must first recognize who they are – “whom it addresses”, and also where they are at – “the questions they ask”. There is little point in reciting chapters from the Catechism of the Catholic Church to someone who has no concept of what the Catholic Church is, or the Church’s origin in Christ, or if they have no concept of how God can even exist! The words we would use would be largely meaningless and ineffective.
To make language appropriate, we need to adopt their language, and their contexts – “signs and symbols”, without diminishing or reducing our message – the Good News of Jesus Christ.
2. Don’t show off.
Being a Catholic you’re probably familiar with some quite elaborate words – Latin or otherwise – like, “ex cathedra”, “apostolic exhortation”, or the classic “transubstantiation”. But when it comes to evangelisation and the use of our language, we shouldn’t throw out long words just to make it look like we know what we’re talking about, because this will often be at the expense of the person we’re talking to.
No one likes to be confused. And when we’re seeking to evangelise, the last thing we want is to leave a person confused and feeling hopeless towards understanding what we’ve said, especially as the message is so important!
We should always seek to build people up, not knock people down. We need to find other ways of telling people about our faith that won’t confuse them. So, for example, instead of using words like “transubstantiation” straight away and then being met with the inevitable “I have no idea what you’re talking about” face, we can talk of the bread and the wine becoming the Body and the Blood of Christ, and then explain that this is what we mean by “transubstantiation”.
3. Language isn’t everything.
Of course, our spoken language isn’t the only means we have in bringing others to Christ. In fact Evangelii Nuntiandi tells us that it is our witness to an authentically Christian life which is our first means of evangelisation.
‘[T]he first means of evangelization is the witness of an authentically Christian life… “modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.’” – EN: 41.
Consider also this passage from the same text:
“Above all the Gospel must be proclaimed by witness. Take a Christian or a handful of Christians who, in the midst of their own community, show their capacity for understanding and acceptance, their sharing of life and destiny with other people, their solidarity with the efforts of all for whatever is noble and good. Let us suppose also that, in addition, they radiate in an altogether simple and unaffected way their faith in values that go beyond the current values, and their hope in something that is not seen and that one would not dare imagine. Through this wordless witness these Christians stir up irresistible questions in the hearts of those who see how they live.” – EN: 21.
4. We can only do so much.
Ultimately, what must be recognized is that faith is a gift of God, and a supernatural virtue infused by Him. The true work of evangelization lies with the Holy Spirit. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us,
“man must have the grace of God to move and assist him; he must have the interior helps of the Holy Spirit, who moves the heart and converts it to God.” – CCC: 153.
There is so much that we can do, and should do, in the mission of the Church that is evangelisation. But we can never force our faith upon others, and we can never fully know, or account for, how God is working in the hearts of the people whom we meet and speak with.
“Evangelisation will never be possible without the action of the Holy Spirit… the Holy Spirit predisposes the soul of the hearer to be open and receptive to the Good News… Techniques of evangelization are good, but even the most advanced ones could not replace the gentle action of the Spirit.” – EN: 75.
Have you got any good evangelisation tips? Why not share them in the comment section below.
Read Evangellii Nuntiandi, 1975 Apostolic Exhortation of Pope Paul VI, in full, here.
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