For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle? So likewise ye, except ye utter by the tongue words easy to be understood, how shall it be known what is spoken? for ye shall speak into the air. (1 Corinthians 14:8-9)
The issue in question when Paul wrote those words was the disruptive influence of incomprehensible ecstatic speech in a worship service. I don’t believe it does any violence to the Apostle’s teaching to apply it in other circumstances.
Immigrants arrive in a new land – for instance Canada, USA, France, or Brazil – and they establish places where they can worship God in their mother tongue. The children learn the language of their new homeland much easier than their parents, but still have some attachment to the old mother tongue. But the third generation speaks only the language of the land of their birth. Their parents and grandparents continue to worship in the old language, but for this generation the preachers are speaking into the air. They have two options: look for another church; or forget about God entirely.
This happened to one congregation of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite almost 100 years ago. The congregation had begun 50 years earlier, and the first and second generations were faithful Christians, worshipping God in the German language. The third generation knew only English and joined other churches in the community. Finally, the last surviving member passed away and the congregation was officially defunct.
The same thing almost happened in another, much larger, congregation. Young people were growing up, getting married, living honest, respectable lives, but never heard the gospel preached in a language they could understand. Finally the congregation called a minister who only knew English to come for revival meetings. Frank Haynes returned several times over a period of almost 10 years, and during those meetings at least 200 were converted and baptized. The congregation switched to English preaching.
But I am thinking that we may have a more subtle problem in our day. We are living in a post-Christian society, yet we continue speaking and preaching in Christian jargon that is incomprehensible to most people around us, perhaps even to many of the young people growing up in our homes. Is the trumpet giving an uncertain sound? Those of us who have grown up with this kind of language, or who have been Christians long enough to be familiar with the jargon, may not even realize that the words we use are not really getting through, but to most people today they are just words in the air.
The deceptive thing is that we are speaking important, eternal truths, but if others do not understand what we are saying, we are speaking in an unknown tongue. “Therefore if I know not the meaning of the voice, I shall be unto him that speaketh a barbarian, and he that speaketh shall be a barbarian unto me” (1 Corinthians 14:11).
It is surely our intention to speak words easy to be understood. Perhaps the first step would be to ask people if they really understand what we are saying. If they seem in doubt, or if they are confused by the jargon we use, we need to make efforts to find a way of speaking those eternal truths in a form that they will understand. That will mean leaving out a lot of the Christian code words and slogans that are so familiar to us. It does not mean watering down the gospel; if anything it means finding words to make the message come through more strongly, in clear unambiguous terms. We owe it to all the people around us who have never heard the gospel in a language that they could understand.