After our family’s first three years living in Zambia, we returned home to the US for to report to churches regarding the work. Before leaving, we were invited by many for tea or dinner. My mother, still learning Bemba, knew that in their custom, one did not compliment the cook on the food but rather said, “I am satisfied”.
Each time my mother would finish eating, she would politely say, with a smile, “Nalefuta”. She noticed some strange looks.
Upon returning to the US she asked a friend who was fluent in Bemba what she had said wrong. Horrified, she learned she should have been saying, ‘Nalefita’. Instead she was saying ‘Nalefuta’ which translates, ‘I have passed gas’.
While living in Armuelles, Panama, I had a Canadian friend who was also Chiquita wife. Jill was not a Christian, nor did she know much about God or Christianity.
We would drive the two hours into the town of David to go grocery shopping every couple weeks, and one time we stopped by a missionary’s friend’s house to visit. When we got into our car to return home, Jill said, “Wow! It was like you guys were speaking Greek. I had no idea what you were talking about: VBS, furlough, spiritual warfare? And who is Beth Moore?”
In my efforts to live a Godly life before my friend, I was actually alienating her by my speech.
I began to notice how when Christians get together, we use language that world cannot relate to. If we want to shine as lights in the world, we need to be intentional about our speech. If we say, “God told me to…” they will think we are mentally unstable. Using ‘church’ jargon makes them feel like we are on another planet. We need to speak in terms that draw others to Christ rather than turning them away.
As we seek present Christ to the world, let us make sure our conversations are not lost in translation. When Jesus spoke to the woman at the well, he spoke of water. When he taught at the Lake of Galilee, He used fishing terms. It all boils down to sensitivity to the other person.
May our speech be intentional and specific to each person we are with. In using terminology they understand, they will hopefully see Christ as someone who loves them and the church as a place they can belong.