Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Communicating Understandably

Since the moment Jesus spoke the words of commission to his followers, believers have wrested with a huge question:  How do we connect with those around us and effectively communicate the gospel of Jesus?  At my church, we are asking this question as we answer God’s call to increased engagement with the community around us.

While I realize that we are communicating the person of Jesus to others, we are also communicating a number of theological ideas.  (I’d define theology here as “Thoughts about God.”)  These theological ideas give the gospel and Jesus (who is the center of gospel) context for a clearer understanding to undergird faith and relationship.

The sensitive and observant among us will readily recognize the significant gap between what is familiar to us believers and what is familiar to the world around us.

We believe Jesus is the one through whom we are actually able to know God.  We believe in Jesus as the incarnate Word, having ministered among us, suffered and died, buried, eternally resurrected, and coming again.  We acknowledge the Bible as the primary source of our revelation about Jesus.  We acknowledge a long history as his church; rich with revelation, reflection, and tradition.  We know this stuff.  We are immersed in these contexts that give our present thoughts and experience meaning.  We care about this stuff.

Some people, however, don’t know this stuff.  They don’t share our contexts.  They generally don’t think about this stuff.  Most often, they don’t really care about this stuff– or at least try not to.  Their cares and concerns are devoted to a numerous variety of other things.  They may be familiar with the name of Jesus, but it doesn’t often go too much further than that.  Most often they’re not very familiar with many stories about him, the things he said and did, and what he was really about.  They’re even less familiar with the full set of Biblical stories and Biblical ideas that give us so much context for our thinking.

There is this seeming chasm between the knowledge and experience of Jesus we have and others don’t.  There can also be this chasm between how believers and non-believers view foundational things like the nature of our world and our place and purpose in it.  The Biblical worldview and our cultural worldviews are quite remarkably different.  

Given these and other foundational differences, we can see with some clarity the incredible challenge we face to communicate Jesus across this gap in a way that will be understood and possibly even received.  If we’re not mindful of the issues within communicating across these gaps, we can inadvertently communicate in such a way that we are misunderstood at best and at worst - we totally freak people out and alienate ourselves.

One of my favorite stories told by John Wimber, the founder of the Vineyard movement, relates to this issue.  John was a successful musician working with the band “The Righteous Brothers”.  After coming to the Lord – knowing pretty much nothing about Jesus or the Bible – John recognizes he needs to go to church.  When he gets to this church, John is greeted by a man who exuberantly asks him, “Hey brother, have you been washed in the Blood?”  (My paraphrased recollection of his response) “Umm, what?  What’s this all about??  Is this some sort of strange ritual that I’ve got to do to be able to come in??  I don’t think I want to take a bath in blood so I can come to church!  I can’t believe I gave up drugs for this…”  And really – what was a guy from his context supposed to think upon hearing that?  If it weren’t for God’s grace working in John, we believers could have scared him away for good.

For those of us who know what it means and understand string of Biblical references and ideas – is being washed in the Blood a good thing?  Absolutely.  To someone knows nothing of the ancient Jewish sacrificial system, the covenants, blood atonement, and all our Christian contexts – it just sounds freakishly weird.  It’s not a good greeting to a stranger.  It’s a conversation starter – but maybe not the kind of conversation you’re hoping for.

Even in the most innocent of circumstances, misunderstanding and alienation can happen quickly.  When people have little or even zero grid for what we’re talking about it’s necessary to pay attention both to what we are saying and to how they are responding. If we’re sensitive enough to notice a reaction that says they’re not getting it, that’s a clear signal that we need to communicate better.  This is one area where the church in general hasn’t always done well when trying to communicate with the world.  We will enthusiastically go on about things that people don’t yet care about, that they have no connection to or reason believe, and we’ll communicate in a way where there’s no context to understand.  “Have you been washed in the Blood?” (Washing in blood?!?!)  “You need to be redeemed, justified, sanctified to be righteous and walking in holiness, etc, etc...”  (Uhh…Can I get my dictionary?)  “The Bible says…!"  (Why should I believe in the authority of that book?)  And in the worst cases, if people seem not to care, instead of being more thoughtful we can sometimes become more forceful in our communication.  Well, who loves talking to a forceful communicator with an apparent agenda?  It can feel assaulting or even violating.  That’s not the way of the gospel, so certainly not a good means to communicate it.

Looking at Acts 17, we find wisdom in how the first believers handled this challenge of communicating Jesus.

While in Thessalonica, Paul’s proclamation of Jesus was wrapped up – not in something his Jewish hearers weren’t thinking about – but in a relevant question they were wrestling with in regards to their expected Messiah.  By working with them through the questions they were actually asking, he found common ground to communicate Jesus. And some came to believe in Jesus.

When Paul arrives at Athens, the scene gets a whole lot more complicated and interesting.  As usual, he first went to the synagogue.  But Paul also went out into the market place where he meets some Greeks who were Epicurean and Stoic philosophers – people who were very different in thought, word, and deed, not only from Paul but even from each other.

So - how does a Jewish Christian like Paul relate to these pagan Greek philosophers who have radically different thoughts, histories, and beliefs?  In a sense it would be easier to speak with Jews, because as a Jew himself he was on more familiar ground.  And of course Jesus was the Jewish Messiah fulfilling Jewish prophetic hope.  Jesus was the answer to a Jewish question.  But now the playing field is completely different.  Different worldviews.  Different hopes.  Different questions.

What we see happen is what Paul himself articulates in 1 Corinthians 9:

“To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.  I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.”  (1 Corinthians 9:20-23)

To these pagan Greek philosophers, Paul becomes as a Greek.  In doing so, he never compromises his faith or integrity.  Rather he is modeling that instead of expecting other people to enter our headspace, we need to enter theirs so that we can communicate.  What is their view of “god”, of the world, of humanity?  What is their religion, politic, driving social value(s)?  What are their hopes, dreams, and values that drive them?  What are their questions, struggles, and future vision?

Paul doesn’t go off on a Hebrew discourse expounding a bunch of Hebrew Scriptures (that would have been quite unknown at the Greek Areopagus).  Rather, he delivers a Hellenistic (Greek) speech, quoting familiar Greek poets.  His speech is full of allusions to the Epicurean and Stoic beliefs as points of contact addressing their worldview and concerns in familiar terms.  Yet at the same time he never concedes or surrenders to their beliefs.  While never quoting scripture, he maintains to keep his whole argument firmly based on Biblical revelation.  On every common contact point of belief and concern with the Greeks, Paul turns the everything right-side-up with the truth of the Gospel.

We as believers and theologians (God-thinkers) of all kinds - we all have the incredible opportunity to communicate the best message ever told about the most amazing person alive - Jesus.  May we have the wisdom and sensitivity to communicate Jesus in a way that connects and is understood.


  1. Excellent post! I love the example of Paul. A great life lesson I learned was through staying with an East Indian family in Mississauga many years ago. It was an extended family and I had heard, via translator, some of my host's dad's testimony - I wanted to know more. But it seemed like we had a language barrier. So I started to learn Hindi because I really wanted to talk with him. As soon as he saw me trying to learn his language he just started talking to me in English. Yup, he was fascinating too.

    What I took away from that was that by making steps towards those I want to communicate with I not only learn a bit of their language, I bypass the walls of suspicion that keep communication from happening. It has led to really cool moments like my gamer buddy Luc asking me how being a gamer and a pastor worked - perfect lead in for a deeper conversation about my faith.

  2. Really good points, Nathan. When communicating, we sometimes focus so much on our message that we forget other important things. Like listening more than we speak. Or watching people's body language to see if they find something puzzling or offensive or have tuned out. One of the principles I find helpful is not to answer a question before it has been asked. When we assume that our message is of ultimate importance (which it is), we sometimes end up trying to force it down someone's throat instead of trusting God's timing (we don't have to say it all and we don't have to say it all right now) and letting the Holy Spirit draw people to Jesus (better than any pressure we might put on people). Thanks for the good thoughts.