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preacherToo 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?

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18 thoughts on “Pastor, Are You Speaking in Tongues During Your Sermon?”

  1. At my church, we have tried to become more clear in explaining different elements of our worship service. For example, after the first song, I, or another one of the pastors, will explain, “What you just heard was a call to worship, which is an invitation to worship God because of what He has done for us through Jesus Christ.” It’s short, only about one or two sentences. But I think it’s important to let people know what is going on, especially if they don’t come from a church background.

  2. Awesome! Thanks for posting. This will also be true of me as a youth minister.

  3. Dave Daye says:

    Great article! I have found that using “we” instead of “you” in sermons is incredibly helpful. There is an artificial holiness assigned to pastors and it is our responsibility to make sure we are seen as one among the congregation, still in need of Christ’s work in us as we walk together for the gospel.

  4. Melody says:

    AAAURRGH!! Trevin!

    I have seen that “seeker” term used a million times and I have never seen anyone define it. It’s always used as a way of a put down towards some church or program. I once asked what it meant a few years ago and some condescending woman informed me that I must attend a seeker-sensitive church if I don’t know what it means.
    Oh gee that was helpful! Besides not telling me what it meant and making it feel like high school where you ask someone what a dirty word means and you don’t get a straight answer, she caused me to sin because I wanted to reach into the computer screen and throttle her for being so nasty about an innocent question.

    So how did a word like “seeker” become a Christian dirty word? *sigh* On the face of it one would think it was a good word like gay used to mean happy. Or is this one of those Calvinist things?

    1. Trevin Wax says:

      I think you might be overreacting to my overreaction. :)

      Just a couple weeks ago, I did a blog on two seekers – Zacchaeus and Jesus.

      I am not opposed to “seeker” language. We need to be mindful of those who are far from God and who come into our worship services. “Seeker-comprehensible” means we should make sure that we are speaking the language of the people in our culture, so that people who do not know God can understand the gospel. “Seeker-driven” is a ministry philosophy in which many aspects of the worship service are geared primarily for the lost, not for believers. (Willow Creek popularized the phrase.)

      We don’t have to buy into the “seeker-driven” mentality, but we should always be “seeker-comprehensible.”

      Hope that helps.

      1. Andrew Orlovsky says:

        The way I see it:

        Good version of seeker sensitive – Recognizing that there may be people at your church that are not Christians, the Gospel must be articulately presented in every service.

        Bad version of seeker sensitive – Not wanting to offend the people at your church that are not Christians, the tough parts of the Bible (Homsexuality is sinful, the OT is violent, Jesus is the only way to heaven) are de-emphasized or even ignored. (This view tends to differ from Liberal Christianity in that the church still has an Evangelical statement of faith and will not explicitly deny said controversial teachings)

  5. Melody says:

    Well you are one of the few that I figured had the sense of humor that would allow me to get away with that and still get an answer too. lol

    I wonder if Pastors ever ask for input from congregations on if something wasn’t clear. I’m guessing you would get more opinion than questions which would be a huge headache.

    There are many things that some of us won’t admit to not understanding because there is always some meanie intellectual Christian that will bring into question if we are even saved if we don’t get it. Sometimes I think life is just high school culture replaying in different scenarios. I guarantee you that new Christians do not get that whole justification, sanctification stuff but they just hang in there picking up clues here and there. All they know is that their eyes are open now and they are amazed. I bet you don’t define those words when you use them. It never occurs to people to define words that they are used to using every day.

  6. Thanks for a great post!

    I have found myself being intentional about either not using large theological words, or carefully explaining each and every one of them in each sermon. Like you said in the post, to an unbeliever this type of language can seem foreign. So each sermon I mention justification, I will take a minute to explain what it means.

    An added benefit: I can also address controversies, analyze different views, and show what our church stands on these theological beliefs.

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  8. Trevin,

    While I understand and agree to a point, this tack has always bothered me for the primary reason that the church is the only one that tells itself, in order to win people to ‘our side’ we must change our language. I know of no other group that does this (granted, my experience and knowledge are probably limited, but hear me out, if you will). I understand the part about using so many $50 theological terms that no one, not even the ‘indoctrinated’ understand. This only elevates the pastor (which I think was part of the problem at Corinth).

    If you go to a football game with some real football experts, you’re in for a treat. They’ll start describing Cover 2 defenses and expect you to keep up. The nickleback needs to do a red dog right here so this split formation fake screen attempt doesn’t go long. Listen to the broadcasters during a game, especially former players. Yes, they will try to simplify it, but usually only after they’ve used the words. They are trying to educate the listener.

    I have a man in my congregation who works in the proteinomics lab at the Mayo Clinic. He’s the head of that department. I had lunch with him one day and he took me on a tour of the lab (my first time there ever and I was definitely ‘seeking’ to be ‘wowed’). He showed me $650,000 machines, not much bigger than a desktop computer, that did fascinating things for research. He even ‘dumbed-down’ some of what he was starting to tell me…because I asked for clarification due to my great lack of understanding.

    Part of my point here is that we, the church, are ‘always’ being told: stop using the language of the Bible because ‘outsiders’ don’t understand it. Well, isn’t that the point of expositional preaching? To explain the text? To shed light and understanding upon it? I get it, if preachers only confuse the matter by using words and never expositing them. But why must I always do ‘all’ the work here? Why can’t I expect a person who comes through our doors, long-time attender or first-time guest, to listen, hear something they might not understand and then ask, ‘What does that mean?’ No seminary student ever enters a classroom, listens to his professor speak about alien righteousness or imputation and doesn’t ask (if it hasn’t been explained or defined), ‘What do you mean by that?’

    Football. Baseball. Basketball. Engineering. Electronics. Computer programmers. Fashion designers. Knitters and crocheters. They all have their terms and language used to communicate what it is they do. I’ll start changing my habits of expositional preaching, using words and explaining them, when I hear others calling for all people of other fields to stop using their field-specific words and terms because I’m either too ignorant to understand, too slow to keep up or just too lazy to ask an easy question, ‘What does that mean? Can you explain it to me?’

    1. Trevin Wax says:


      I am not advocating for “giving up” our distinctive language. In fact, I’ve written a blog post that encourages Christians to reclaim the uniqueness of our vocabulary in other settings.

      My point is simply that we aren’t doing evangelization and edification well UNLESS we are speaking in ways that people can understand. This doesn’t mean giving up big, important Bible words; but it certainly means helping the uninitiated along as they grow in their comprehension of the biblical text. For what it’s worth, I think the point you are making here is very close to what I’m advocating: Explain the text. Actually explain the text with words and concepts people in our culture will be familiar with. This is what it means to be a good missionary.

  9. Shaunta says:

    Awesome article! Definitely not just great advice but true wisdom. Too many people come to church & leave out more confused because of the language used. Thanks for the post, I will now be more intentionally & careful in my own conversations

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Trevin Wax

​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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