Louise* had been a believer for many years. She had come to faith in Christ while still a student at a Christian school but for many years, her understanding of Scripture was shallow. Now in her sixties, she recently signed up for a small group. One of the first things she was asked to share was her personal testimony. She had never done anything like that before and was nervous about revealing her own life story.
As she sat among the small group members, the leader decided to help by gently quizzing her. Louise was asked, “When did you have a personal encounter with Jesus?”
Louise was confused. “Well, I went to a Christian school,” she started to say.
The small group leader said, “But that doesn’t make you a Christian.”
Surprised by the curt response, Louise felt even more nervous. She tried again. “When I was an adult, I started going to church.”
The small group leader shook her head. “That doesn’t make you a Christian either.”
Now Louise was flustered. She could feel all eyes were upon her. She felt a tension rising in her, a feeling she didn’t expect from attending a small group. She stuttered her next response. “I got baptized.”
Once more the small group leader shook her head disapprovingly. “That doesn’t make you a Christian.”
Fighting to tamp down her frustration, Louise asked, “Then what do you mean? I’ve been a Christian for a long time!”
Calmly, the leader said, “I mean, when did you have a personal encounter with Jesus?”
Louise snapped, “I don’t know what you mean!” By now, she was upset. When she left that evening’s meeting, she vowed in her heart not to return. She couldn’t recall the last time when she had felt so humiliated.
A few days later, Louise rang up her friend, James.* Two years prior, Louise had attended a study of The Stranger on the Road to Emmaus that James and his wife had been leading. She related what happened at the small group. “What did she mean by a personal encounter? I have no idea,” she told James.
James asked her, “Do you remember when we went through the study of The Stranger? What did we learn regarding what the Bible says about getting our sin-debt removed? How does one receive eternal life?”
Louise was silent for a few moments as she recalled the study. “By trusting in Jesus,” she said eventually.
James agreed with her. “That’s right. We used a phrase during that study. What does it mean to trust Jesus?”
Louise closed her eyes, trying to remember. “It means to take Jesus at his word.”
“That’s right. And when we discussed about trusting Jesus, remember what you told me? When did you first do that?”
“When I was a girl at the Christian school,” replied Louise.
“In other words, when you were but a girl, you recognised that Jesus was the creator God, and you trusted him then to save you from the consequences of sin and give you everlasting life. You became a believer at a young age. That was what your small group leader was asking about.”
“Then why didn’t she say so!” said Louise, exasperated.
Hearing Louise’s story reminds us of how easy it is for believers to slip into “Christianese”—the religious jargon we are familiar with. Phrases like “personal encounter with Jesus” may have been obvious to the small group leader, but in Louise’s mind, she had never met Jesus face to face and so she didn’t understand the question.
When we guide someone through the gospel story, we need to be careful with the words and phrases we use. We must not assume that our listener is familiar with idioms and vocabulary we often use as Christians. This is especially true when we are sharing with a friend who has little or no background in the Bible.
It would be wise to rely on phrases that come right out of Scripture. For example, in John 5:24 (ESV), Jesus said,
“Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.”
Similarly, in speaking with Martha about everlasting life, Jesus said to her:
“I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26 ESV)
Jesus didn’t ask her to remember this “personal encounter.” Nor did he ask her to “give her heart to him.” He simply asked if she believed who he is and what he is promising to do for her.
And her reply was equally simple.
She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.” (John 11:27 ESV)
As ambassadors, we need to be conscious of the words we choose to use in explaining the gospel message. We don’t want to inadvertently cause confusion for our friends and family.
(*Name changed as per GoodSeed policy.)