Communication That Connects: Making the Gospel Intelligible
A few years ago I had the opportunity to present the ministry of Reformed Baptist Seminary to a local church. I opened up for questions at the end of the presentation, and one brother asked how the seminary assesses a man’s preaching and teaching ability. I told him that we require our divinity students to preach and/or teach at least four times in the presence of one or more of their pastors, and we ask their pastor(s) to give them constructive feedback on the content, structure, and presentation of the message.
Getting the Cookies to the Lower Shelf
Later that morning another brother came up to me and expressed his appreciation for the presentation. However, he wanted to offer some constructive feedback and advice related to the issue of preparing men to be good preachers. Here’s a paraphrase of what he said:
When it comes to assessing a student’s sermon or SS lesson, it should not merely be the student’s pastors who give them input. We should also be concerned to hear what the 70-year old widow has to say. We should also be interested to know whether the 8th grader understood the message. We should want to make sure that the young ministerial aspirant can connect with the single mom, the blue-collar worker, and the variety of people that make up the congregation of a local church.
I don’t think this brother was insisting that RBS enlist widows and middle-schoolers into our faculty. I think his point was simply this: a good preacher is not merely a man who conveys biblical truth accurately. Nor is he a merely a man who can impress his pastors or seminary professors. A good preacher, in this man’s mind, was a man who accurately proclaimed God’s word in a way that is intelligible and that connects with ordinary people.
The Common People Heard Him Gladly
As this brother was sharing his advice, I immediately thought of those passages in the Gospels that inform us how the ordinary people of Jesus’ day responded to his message:
When Jesus had finished this sermon, the crowds were astonished at His teaching, because He was teaching them like one who had authority, and not like their scribes (Matt 7:28-29, CSB).
And the common people heard Him gladly (Mark 12:37, NKJ).
But [the religious leaders] did not find anything they could do [to harm Jesus], for all the people were hanging on his words (Luke 19:48, ESV).
And all the people would get up early in the morning to come to Him in the temple to listen to Him (Luke 21:38, NAS).
These texts do not necessarily imply that everyone who heard Jesus responded savingly to his message. They do imply, however, that Jesus was a good communicator. Not only did he teach God’s word accurately, but He also taught the truth effectively. He knew his target audience, and He knew how to communicate the truth on a level that they would clearly understand.1
Accommodating Our Gospel Communication
That leads me to the topic I’d like to address in this series of posts. I want to speak on the subject of accommodating our communication of the gospel to the people whom we’re trying to reach for Jesus. This will be a followup on our series on “Contextualization and Church Ministry.” In that study we noted that the apostle Paul expressed a passion to see as many sinners come to Christ as possible: “For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them (emphasis added; 1 Cor 9:19).2 Of course, Paul believed the salvation of sinners and the growth of the church ultimately depended on God (1 Cor. 3:6). Yet, Paul’s commitment to God’s sovereignty in salvation didn’t lead him to passivity. He didn’t sit back, fold his hands, and say, “God will convert the heathen without my help.” On the contrary, Paul recognized that God uses agents and means to get the gospel to sinners.
Moreover, Paul believed that he had to accommodate himself to his target audience in order for his evangelism to be more effective:
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 not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some (1 Cor 9:20–22).
Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved. Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ (1 Cor 10:32–11:1).
This is biblical accommodation or contextualization. We clarified and explained what biblical accommodation is not (click here) and what biblical accommodation is (click here). I won’t bother to review that material, but I will repeat the expanded definition I offered. Biblical contextualization is
a self-conscious and self-denying accommodation of the gospel messenger and the gospel message in biblically informed ways in order to enhance the gospel’s intelligibility and to remove any unnecessary obstacles that may prevent the target audience from hearing, understanding and/or receiving the gospel.
With this definition of biblical contextualization in view, I want to focus our attention on the one of the specific areas where you and I need to accommodate ourselves to the people to whom we’re seeking to minister, namely, the gospel message.3 In the following installments of this series I want to argue for a “communication that connects,” that is, a gospel communication characterized by clarity and relevance.4
- We’re not denying the unbeliever’s “spiritual inability” to understand truly and to embrace savingly gospel truth (1 Cor 2:14). But spiritual inability is not so much an ontological or a (strictly) epistemological inability. It’s more an ethical inability. As the unbeliever Mark Twain once remarked, “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.” Hence, it’s possible to make the gospel intelligible to the unbeliever at one level while depending completely on the Holy Spirit to make it intelligible (and attractive) at a deeper level. I’ll address this in more detail in the following posts. [↩]
- Scripture citations for this series are from the English Standard Version (Crossway Bibles, 2011) unless otherwise noted. [↩]
- Communication is just one facet of cultural accommodation. Other ways in which church ministries accommodate to their culture include things like the use of technologies, the style of architecture, the genre of worship music, dress, etc. We’ll address technology and church ministry in our third lecture. And it’s likely that some of the other lecturers will touch on some of these other areas as they address the topics of church vision, worship, fellowship, discipleship, and outreach. [↩]
- I’m not implying that we have to “make” the gospel relevant. In point of fact, the truth of the gospel is intrinsically relevant for every human being. But effective communication is communication that effectively shows the target audience how and why the gospel is relevant to them. [↩]