Too many preachers are speaking in tongues.

No, I don’t mean the kind of tongues Paul mentioned in 1 Corinthians 14 when he encouraged the early Christians to have an interpreter so that all could be edified. As far as I know, there isn’t a movement of pastors standing up in front of the congregation and giving ecstatic utterances.

But I wonder if, in a different way, we might as well be speaking in tongues. I’m referring here to our religious jargon.

Here’s a question we should ponder: Do we rely on biblical concepts or phrases in ways that fail to make sense to outsiders?

Let’s ask this another way. Would an unbeliever or a believer unfamiliar with the Bible be able to understand the basic message you are communicating in a sermon? If the answer is no, then we might as well be speaking in a foreign language.

The Need to Understand

I find it fascinating that Paul’s concern for the Corinthians is shaped by his desire for everyone present to be edified. When he regulates the speaking in tongues going on in that church, he appears to base his counsel on the need for biblical instruction to be comprehensible:

But now, brothers, if I come to you speaking in other languages, how will I benefit you… (v. 6)

Unless you use your tongue for intelligible speech, how will what is spoken be known? For you will be speaking into the air. (v. 9)

If I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be a foreigner to the speaker, and the speaker will be a foreigner to me… Seek to excel in building up the church. (v. 11-12)

In the church I would rather speak five words with my understanding, in order to teach others also, than 10,000 words in another language. (v. 19)

Now, I admit to stretching the application of this passage beyond its original intent. In 1 Corinthians, Paul is contrasting the gift of prophecy with the gift of tongues, claiming that the miraculous gift of tongues is a sign to unbelievers, and prophecy is a gift for the edification of believers.

But I wonder if there isn’t an application here for those of us who want to be faithful proclaimers of God’s Word in a different context. After all, the underlying reason for Paul’s concern about the situation in Corinth is this: People aren’t able to understand the message, and therefore, they are not edified. 

As a missionary theologian, the apostle Paul wanted people to hear and understand God’s Word. Anything that got in the way of that process of understanding and edification (even miraculous gifts!) must be dealt with. The message must be comprehensible.

Being Seeker-Comprehensible

Evangelism and edification do not need to be at odds with one another. Commenting on this passage, Tim Keller writes:

[Paul] insists that the Christians should change their behavior so that the worship service will be comprehensible to nonbelievers…

My thesis is that the weekly worship service can be very effective in evangelism of non-Christians and in the edification of Christians if it does not aim at either alone but is gospel centered and in the vernacular. (Center Church, 302)

This doesn’t mean that our worship services must be “seeker-driven.” But we should always seek to be “seeker-comprehensible,” which Ed Stetzer links to “contextual preaching”:

At the heart of effective preaching is a solid missiological perspective. Are you communicating in such a way that your words actually convey biblical truth to your audience? Or does your preaching float right past your hearers because it’s not delivered “on a frequency” that they listen to?

Not long ago, I was invited to preach somewhere. I sent the pastor my manuscript ahead of time to see if he had any suggestions. He and his leadership team marked it up and sent it back, adding all sorts of nuance to my language. Their suggestions didn’t change the biblical points I was making, but they did affect the delivery. The exercise was enormously beneficial to me. It caused me to stop again and consider how people in the congregation may “hear” the message or miss the main point due to religious jargon I didn’t realize I had.

Becoming Comprehensible

In his book, Preaching to a Post-Everything WorldZack Eswine offers some practical ways we can be understood by believers and unbelievers alike. Here are two of his suggestions:

1. Don’t assume that people are familiar with the Bible. Help people find the Bible passage.

“Turn with me to the right,” “Find the New Testament and then go to the fourth book,” or “Turn to page 567 in the Bible on your chairs” are helpful phrases. When trying to find a less-traveled book such as Joel or Obadiah, acknowledge that this book is not always easy to find: “So let’s give ourselves a bit of time to find it.” Sometimes you might humble yourself and remind people by saying: “If you are unsure where Ecclesiastes is, don’t worry. With time your familiarity with the Bible will grow. There was a time in my life when I didn’t know where any of the books were except for Genesis and Revelation. Give yourself time; it’ll come.”

2. Speak as if non-Christian people are present.

Christians need to hear how a follower of Jesus speaks to non-Christians. Non-Christian people need to feel what it’s like for a follower of Jesus to speak to them in Jesus’s name. Use phrases such as: “Maybe you’re here this morning and you are not sure of what you think about God,” or “Sometimes those who are not churchgoing people feel frustrated by the lack of love they see in church people. Jesus shared this same frustration,” or “Even if you aren’t a follower of Jesus, you know what it is to feel guilt, to have regret, to long for healing,” or “If you’re not a Christian and you’re listening, this might sound a bit strange to you. But what I’m about to say might help you understand why Christians think the way we do on this subject.”

I’d add one more suggestion from Tim Keller:

Always show respect and empathy, even when you are challenging and critiquing, saying things such as, ‘I know many of you will find this disturbing.’ Show that you understand. Be the kind of person about whom people conclude that, even if they disagree with you, you are someone they can approach about such matters.

Along these lines, it’s best to use “we” more than “you” when preaching. If you constantly use “you,” you can create the impression that you as the speaker are without fault, giving to others commands that don’t apply to you. The use of “we” implies that everyone (including the pastor) is in need of spiritual growth.  

What about you? How have you sought to become more comprehensible to believers and nonbelievers alike?