To quote the old adage, “it’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it.” This is especially critical when communicating with someone who does not share your views. In that case, an analogy of translating between different languages is apropos.

When I was in high school, I once had the opportunity to go on a mission trip to the Philippines. While there, I and others preached and taught the Bible at several small churches, many of them in Manila and the surrounding area. While many Filipinos understand English, we used a translator while preaching to help our message come through. Even having the translator doesn’t completely remove dangerous pitfalls.

One day, I was talking about Paul’s statement that “I count it all rubbish that I may gain Christ” (Philippians 3:8). To help give my audience a view of just how strong Paul’s emphasis is, I pointed out that when he says “rubbish,” he is actually referring to human excrement. The next thing I knew, the room of about 50-60 people had erupted into laughter. By speaking with some of our companions later, I gathered that I had unintentionally made a bathroom joke.

Our discussions with our friends and neighbors can result in similar misunderstandings, but the results are usually less comical. Translation between the language of unbelievers and the language of Christians can be tricky business! Here are some tips to help Christians get it right.

Unbelievers Speak More than One Language

If you don’t spend time getting to know your friends and neighbors, it can be tempting to form your own idea of what their opinions and temperament must be when it comes to theism. You may find you are way off base. I once went on a miniature rant on all of the flaws of Richard Dawkins when speaking with a classmate who was an avowed atheist. He responded with, “Yeah, I don’t like Dawkins. He’s far too militant for my taste.” For this classmate, it was not the arguments of Dawkins that were his hangup, but the similarities he saw between the Old Testament and other ancient religions. I was talking right past him.

So how do you know what your neighbor’s language is? By following the principles of First Date Evangelism: ask him or her questions. Get to know them. Then you will know what value system and criteria of evaluation they are working from.

Recognize “Trigger Words”

Understand that when I use the term “trigger word,” I don’t mean that we should never say anything that might offend someone. The exchange of ideas is not a safe space. What I am saying, however, is that all of us have certain words in our cultural dialect that are signals to the in-group and turn-offs for the out-group.

When a Christian speaks of Hell, for example, it signals to the in-group God’s justice and the urgency of the gospel call. To an unbeliever, it signals that Christians think her Aunt Mabel deserved to burn forever. We have to be sensitive to this, and think of ways to approach the same message in a way that will be more palatable.

I’m not suggesting that we should “water down” the gospel message in any way. Only that we ought to think about how we would want to be told this message if we were in their shoes. Causing unnecessary offense in our delivery is no more a virtue than sugar-coating the gospel is.

Study the Language

While this could have been included in the first point, I wanted to put it last because it’s the one I find we need constant reminding of. Put simply, you should always strive to study the language of your friends and neighbors. Just as the non-native speaker is always learning new intricacies and idioms of his or her second language, we should always be learning more of what makes up a person’s language and culture, especially when it comes to debating values and religion. This means, in simple terms, to always be asking questions, and always be trying to learn where the other person is coming from.

This approach doesn’t end on “the first date.” By approaching unbelievers relationally, and taking the time and effort to understand them and their “cultural language,” we will take real steps toward building bridges. We may find more opportunity for sharing the gospel as a result.