“Wind the lazy jib sheet around the winch and prepare to tack. As I bring the bow into the wind, be ready to release the working sheet then tighten the new working sheet for a close reach. Ready about?”
If you’re a sailor, you’ll understand that these are words I might speak while teaching someone to sail.
Here’s some other things you might hear me say while sailing:
“Attach the halyard to the head and hoist the main.”
“Don’t let the clew whip around in the wind! If it clonks you on the head, you might not have a clue anymore. Attach the sheet and control it.”
“Coming close hauled; harden up.”
“Tighten the leech line.”
“Adjust the cunningham.”
“The wind is getting lighter, loosen the foot.”
Here’s a decent diagram of the parts of a sailboat if you’re curious about sailing. My point in this post isn’t to teach you about sailing, but to demonstrate that it matters what vocabulary we use when teaching. To someone new to sailing, the above phrases sound like gibberish.
My husband, Todd, and I teach sailing to the counselors at Lutheran Camp Perkins in the beautiful Sawtooth Basin of Idaho. These college-aged counselors not only teach campers the joys of the great outdoors, but also about the joys of following the God who made and sustains the great outdoors. Because most of these counselors have been raised in Christian homes, they are familiar and comfortable with such language as,
“Jesus’ sacrifice brings justification.”
“… the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit.”
“Peter, James, and John witnessed Jesus’ transfiguration.”
“… propitiation for our sins.”
“All of Christianity hinges upon the resurrection.”
“Apostles wrote the epistles.”
For someone not familiar with Christianity and its vocabulary, the above statements are also gibberish.
Imagine I invite someone out sailing and begin giving instructions using pure sailing terminology. If they are a sailing novice, they might begin to feel like an ignoramus. Not a great experience for my guest. That can be the experience of someone unfamiliar with Christianity attending a Christian camp or a Christian church service. People around them are speaking with a vocabulary they don’t understand.
And so, while we teach sailing to the counselors, we also attempt to give them the experience of ignorance in a new subject. We purposely allow them this discomfort to help them understand the perspective of some of the campers they will have in their cabins that summer.
When explaining our faith, we must meet people where they are at in their knowledge and understanding. Every subject—be it sailing or Christianity—possesses its own specific vocabulary. Todd and I can sail without using sailing terminology, but doing so is laborious and difficult. While we teach our guests to sail in terms they can understand, we simultaneously teach them sailing vocabulary so we can all communicate and sail with more efficiency and enjoyment.
It is just so with our faith. When people are interested in hearing about it, we must do our best to begin by speaking in terms they understand. While explaining some vocabulary terms might be necessary, it doesn’t need to be taught all at once. After all, coming to faith is gaining a license to learn.
For a fun exercise on language and understanding, ask a group of preschoolers what “let Jesus into your heart” means. Some interesting perspectives are available from such a group of literal thinkers. Then ask them what “cleansed by the blood” means. That ought to get some good reactions.