Communication That Connects: Defined and Described
In an earlier post, I stressed the importance of presenting the truth gospel to our target audience in a way that’s clear and intelligible. I referred to this as “communication that connects.” But what precisely do I mean by that phrase? Below I’ll attempt to offer a definition and a description of what such accommodated communication looks like. In subsequent posts, I’ll adduce some biblical arguments and suggest some practical applications for church ministry.
Communication That Connects Defined
When I speak of “communication that connects,” I’m thinking primarily of
gospel communication that utilizes language and thought forms that are intelligible and that are especially suited to the audience we’re trying to reach in order to make the relevance of the gospel to their deepest needs more apparent.
At the most basic level, we need to use the language of our target audience. For most of us, that means English. But if we’re engaged in cross-cultural ministry, whether here in the US or in another country, we might have to learn and use another language, like Spanish, Chinese, or Arabic.
But contextualized communication means more than merely choosing the right language. More specifically, we need to choose the right vocabulary, metaphors, imagery, illustrations, and applications for the audience to whom we’re seeking to communicate. Effective communication utilizes those words and metaphors and concrete applications that really “connect” with our hearers. Missiologist Lesslie Newbigin underscores this point when he writes,
If the gospel is to be understood, if it is to be received as something which communicates truth about the real human situation, if it is, as we say, to “make sense,” it has to be communicated in the language of those to whom it is addressed and has to be clothed in symbols which are meaningful to them. And since the gospel does not come as a disembodied message, but as the message of a community which claims to live by it and which invites others to adhere to it, the community’s life must be so ordered that it “makes sense” to those who are so invited.1
Does such contextualized communication necessarily entail the alteration of gospel truth? By no means! As Newbigin goes on to say,
But if the gospel is truly to be communicated, the subject in that sentence is as important as the predicate. What comes home to the heart of the hearer must really be the gospel, and not a project shaped by the mind of the hearer.2
So we’re definitely not arguing for changing the essence of the gospel or for distorting biblical truth.
In addition to employing the best language and thought forms in our communication of the gospel, we also may need to emphasize certain aspects or facets of a biblical topic more than others depending on the basic make up and needs of our audience.3
Communication That Connects Described
Let me illustrate this point with a brief analysis of a sermon preached by our Senior Pastor, Bob Selph. In August 2012, Bob preached to our congregation a message entitled “The Bible and Homosexuality.” The topic was especially relevant. President Obama had publicly affirmed his support for same-sex marriage in May. Not long after that, Dan Cathy, the president of the popular fast-food restaurant “Chick-fil-A” and a Bible-believing Christian, expressed his support for traditional marriage. Former governor Mike Huckabee followed up by encouraging Christians to show their support for Cathy by patronizing his restaurants on Wednesday, August 1st. The gay and lesbian community responded by showing up at the restaurants in protest on Friday, August 3rd. So homosexuality was a “hot topic” in national conversation.
Bob’s message was just under 60 minutes long. He devoted about one-third of the sermon addressing the sin of homosexuality. He spent the other two-thirds of the sermon highlighting Christ’s redemptive posture toward homosexuals and God’s grace for overcoming the sin. He ended by exhorting the church not to conceal, not to compromise, and not to condemn but to “speak the truth in love.” Even when discussing the sinfulness of homosexuality, he pointed out that the bigger sin behind it is a “worship disorder” that’s at the root of all our sin. In the introduction and throughout the message, he repeatedly urged us to avoid a self-righteous attitude and to seek to reach out to the homosexual community redemptively.
Now if Pastor Selph were publicly debating a liberal theologian who argued that the Bible condones homosexuality, I think he’d be justified in spending a lot more time developing biblical arguments to demonstrate that homosexuality is in fact a sin. However, he was preaching to a congregation the great majority of which already agreed with the Bible’s portrayal of homosexuality as sin.
So what aspects of the biblical message do you think Bob needed to emphasize a little more? I think he needed to underscore the Bible’s message of forgiveness and grace and hope, as well as to stress our need as God’s people not merely to voice our disapproval but to seek to engage homosexuals compassionately as fellow sinners who are just as deserving of God’s judgment. And that’s precisely what he did.
Bob’s sermon would not have prompted a lot of “Amens” if he had preached it at the Westboro Baptist Church.4 But I believe he was faithful to the Scripture, and I think he did a fine job of modeling the kind of contextualized communication I’m trying to commend.
By way of summary, then, “communication that connects” is gospel communication that utilizes language and thought forms that are intelligible and that are especially suited (in terms of emphasis and structure) to the audience we’re trying to reach in order to make the relevance of the gospel to their deepest needs more apparent. Once again, let me borrow the insights of Tim Keller:
Sound contextualization means translating and adapting the communication and ministry of the gospel to a particular culture without compromising the essence and particulars of the gospel itself. The great missionary task is to express the gospel message to a new culture in a way that avoids making the message unnecessarily alien to that culture, yet without removing or obscuring the scandal and offense of biblical truth. A contextualized gospel is marked by clarity and attractiveness, and yet it still challenges the sinners’ self-sufficiency and calls them to repentance. It adapts and connects to the culture, yet at the same time challenges and confronts it.5
- The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 141. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- This aspect of contextualization requires much wisdom. Timothy Keller uses the illustration of drilling and blasting. “To contextualize with balance and successfully reach people in a culture,” writes Keller, “we must both enter the culture sympathetically and respectfully (similar to drilling) and confront the culture where it contradicts biblical truth (similar to blasting).” Yet Keller acknowledges the challenging of erring in one direction or the other: “If we ‘blast’ away—railing against the evils of culture—we are unlikely to gain a hearing among those we seek to reach. Nothing we say to them will gain traction; we will be written off and dismissed. We may feel virtuous for being bold, but we will have failed to honor the gospel by putting it in its most compelling form. On the other hand, if we simply ‘drill’—affirming and reflecting the culture and saying things that people find acceptable—we will rarely see anyone converted. In both cases, we will fail to ‘move the boulder.’… It is only when we do our blasting on the basis of our drilling—when we challenge the culture’s errors on the basis of something it (rightly) believes—that we will see the gospel having an impact on people.” Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 119. See also D. A. Carson’s audio message “That By All Means I Might Win Some: Faithfulness and Flexibility in Gospel Proclamation,” given at The Gospel Coalition Conference in 2009; accessed January 7, 2013 on the Internet: http://thegospelcoalition.org/resources/a/That-By-All-Means-I-Might-Win-Some. [↩]
- A local church in Kansas known for its outspoken and hateful opposition to homosexuality. Their main website is entitled, “Godhatesfags.com.” [↩]
- Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 89. [↩]