The Hidden Dangers of Sounding 'Relevant': What do you need to 'have in your life'?

I was heading out in the car to do some visiting this morning, and as I was driving along I heard a bit of Fearne Cotton's show on Radio 1 (which is admittedly not what I normally listen to on the wireless). Fearne was interviewing Nelly Furtado about her new single, which she then played. And, being the year 2012, by the time the single was finished Fearne had got lots of texts and tweets from listeners in response.

And that's where it got interesting for me. Interesting because the same expression came back several times from either Fearne Cotton or a listener. But we'll come back to that in just a moment.

Every so often in the church world I suddenly hear a new expression. And often, once it's been heard the first time, it keeps on coming back with increasing regularity. That's how language works in all situations, and it's just the same with how preachers speak. And just as words and expressions come into fashion, others go out of fashion. Lots of the Christian expressions I heard regularly as a child seem quite old-fashioned now. We still say the same things; it's just that we use different words to express it now.

But every so often an odd new expression makes an appearance on the scene. And often these are reflections of youth speech as part of an ongoing quest to sound relevant. (I was baffled the first time I heard a British preacher use the bizarre expression 'to love on people', and still have no idea what it means, unless the preposition is completely redundant, but have since heard it used over and over again by hip young Americans.) Lately, one of the things I've been hearing more and more often is people saying you need 'to have God in your life'. Now, as expressions go, that one seems intelligible enough. It's not pretty or eloquent, but it seems to mean what it says.

Or so I thought. That is, until I heard Fearne Cotton, Nelly Furtado, and some listeners' tweets and texts on Radio 1.
You see, it was the same expression that kept coming up: 'to have it in your life.' But Fearne and her listeners weren't talking about God. No, they were talking about Nelly Furtado's single. Instead of talking about a release date, Fearne spoke of when you could have it in your life. Instead of saying they wanted to buy the single, listeners texted of the need to have this song in their lives.

So learn a lesson from Radio 1 (even if you don't fall within the 15-29 age-bracket of its target audience): sometimes things mean more than they say, and so sometimes when we try to compact the Christian message into hip or relevant soundbites, we can easily end up miscommunicating. You see, if we apply the same language to God as to a Nelly Furtado single, what are we really saying about God? A single downloaded by a teenager from iTunes will be listened to for a few weeks or a few months at best, then either consigned to history or occasionally wheeled out for a nostalgic feeling. That's the sort of thing Radio 1 listeners are talking about as necessary to have in one's life. So, 'I need to have it in my life' is hyperbole. The thing 'needed' isn't necessary. And its place in one's life is fleeting at best.

God, on the other hand, is very necessary. And the place He wants to occupy in our lives isn't fleeting, but permanent and pre-eminent. So using the same language as teenagers use of the latest single that will be here today and gone tomorrow miscommunicates the reality and the seriousness of Christ's call to repent and believe the gospel.

Language is powerful, so we need to take heed to the language we use. Whether we use the latest relevant-sounding expressions, or something that's long gone out of fashion, we can still face the same danger of miscommunication. Whether I say 'you need God in your life', 'ask Jesus into your heart' or 'make Christ your Saviour and Lord', I run the very real risk that those I'm trying to reach with the gospel won't have a clue what I really mean. What I need to do is communicate the gospel itself in a way people will understand. I need to get across the truth that Jesus died for our sins and rose again victorious from the dead and how God calls us to respond to that truth in faith and repentance. It will probably take a lot more explanation than a handy expression, but with more explanation there's also a lot less room for misunderstanding.

We don't want anyone to get the wrong idea and think that God's like the latest single: nice to have to brighten life up for a while, but ultimately temporary and disposable. Instead we want to make clear His permanence and pre-eminence, His glory and His grace.