Communication That Connects: God Accommodates and So Must We
Why should we endeavor to communicate gospel truth in a way that’s clear and intelligible to our target audience? Below I’d like to provide two biblical arguments to support the idea of contextualized communication. The first highlights God’s own manner of communicating to humans. The second underscores the biblical mandate that obligates us to follow our heavenly Father’s example.1
God Accommodates His Communication to Man
God uses the language and literary forms of his target audience. When revealing himself to the Hebrews, God chose to communicate using the Hebrew language. Moreover, God used literary forms with which his audience was familiar. He employed the forms of historical narrative, legal codes, international treaty form, poetry, wisdom sayings, and parables or stories with which his audience would be familiar.
By way of illustration, imagine asking a 10-year old child to write a 500-word description of the moon and draw a picture of it. Then you ask an astrophysicist to write a 500-word description of the moon and to include a Hubble telescope photo. If we placed both those descriptions and pictorial portrayals side-by-side, would they differ? Naturally, the scientist’s portrayal of the moon would be much more detailed, complex, and sophisticated.
Then imagine that we could ask the God and Creator of all things to give us a 500-word description of the moon, employing all his omniscience and creativity. Just as the scientist can give a more complex and sophisticated description of the moon than the child, so God is able to give a much more complex and sophisticated portray of the moon than the scientist.
But here’s the amazing thing! God chose to communicate to mankind not in the language of the omniscient deity or even in the language of the sophisticated scientist. Instead, he chose to use the language of the common man.
It’s important for us to remember that Hebrew was almost certainly not the language Adam spoke. It wasn’t some sort of special language sent down from heaven. You may be surprised to know that Hebrew was a dialect of the Canaanite tongue.2
When Abraham and family sojourned in Canaan, they eventually learned the language of that land and adopted it as their primary language. They continued to speak that language while they were in Egypt. And when they came out of Egypt, God used that language as the vehicle for his special revelation.
Thus, Moses could say to the Israelites regarding God’s written word that he was passing on to them:
For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off…. But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it (Deut 30:11, 14).
Commenting on this text, Matthew Henry writes,
[God’s word] is not communicated in a strange language; but it is in [your] mouth, that is, in the vulgar tongue that is commonly used by [you], in which [you may] hear it read, and talk of it familiarly among [your] children. It is not wrapped up in obscure phrases or figures to puzzle and amuse [you], or in hieroglyphics, but it is in [you] heart; it is delivered in such a manner as that it is level to [your] capacity, even to the capacity of the meanest [i.e., simple minded].3
And when the “fullness of time” had come, God not only sent forth his Son as his supreme revelation, but he also raised up the apostles to provide the church with an inspired witness to Jesus’ work and teachings, using not the Hebrew language but the Greek language, which was the lingua franca of Jesus’ day. This makes sense because the light of the gospel is now to go to all the nations.
What’s more, God not only chose Greek but he chose Koine or “common” Greek. He could have chosen the classical Greek of the academy. But he didn’t. He chose the Greek of the common man.4
Why didn’t God choose loftier forms of language? Why didn’t he limit himself to the language of the highly refined culture? Why did God stoop and accommodate himself to the common man?
God did so because he is genuinely concerned with making the communication of his gospel truth intelligible to the humans he’s seeking to redeem.
God Expects Us to Accommodate to Our Audience
In 1 Corinthians 14 Paul gives instructions regarding conduct in corporate worship. In the first part of the chapter, Paul addresses whether or not it’s appropriate to prophesy or pray or sing in a foreign language in the assembly. And he speaks to this controversy by stressing the principle of intelligibility. We don’t have time to read the whole passage, but allow me to quote selectively:
So with yourselves, if with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air. There are doubtless many different languages in the world, and none is without meaning, but if I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me. So with yourselves, since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church (14:9-12).
What am I to do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also. Otherwise, if you give thanks with your spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say “Amen” to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying? For you may be giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not being built up (14:15-17).
If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds? But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you. What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up (14:23-26).
Note that there are two groups of people Paul identifies in this context: believers and unbelievers. And Paul’s concerned that the message of the gospel be intelligible to both.5 Moreover, what Paul says about prophecy, praying and singing applies also to any other form of gospel presentation. Whether church brochures or church websites or church names, let what they communicate be intelligible.
That means you and I need to know the language of our target audience. If they speak Spanish, we need to communicate in Spanish. If they speak Chinese, we need to communicate in Chinese. If they speak English, then we need to communicate in English.
Not just that. But we have to discern what kind of English they speak. What kind of vocabulary they’re familiar with.6 And if we introduce new vocabulary, we need to labor to define our terms.
There’s something more. We need to emphasize those facets of biblical truth that are best suited to our target audience’s sphere of knowledge and experience, as well as to their present spiritual state.
Study Paul’s preaching in the Book of Acts. When Paul preached to the Jews, his primarily focus is on proving that Jesus is the Messiah, and he makes immediate appeal the OT Scriptures in order to prove his point. Why? Paul knew his audience. He knew that the Jews already accepted the OT as the oracles of God. He knew that the burning issue for them was the identity and the mission of God’s Messiah.
But when Paul preached to the Gentiles in Acts 14 or the Greek philosophers in Acts 17, Paul modified his approach. Instead of beginning with Scripture and Jesus’ Messiahship, Paul begins with general revelation and the reality the One True God, whom his audience knows in their heart of hearts. He speaks of this one God as the Creator and Sustainer of Life, as the Sovereign Lord who controls history. Then, only after laying this groundwork, does Paul introduce Jesus as the man God has appointed to be the judge of the living and the dead.7
Paul wasn’t preaching two different gospels. Paul wasn’t trimming away the hard sayings or offensive elements of the gospel just to make his audience feel comfortable. But Paul was concerned with intelligibility. He wanted to connect. Furthermore, Paul sought to emphasize those aspects of biblical truth that would be most suitable to the immediate needs of the people to whom he was ministering.8
So to the Jews, Paul preached as one who put himself into the shoes of a Jew. And to the Gentiles, Paul preached as one who put himself in the shoes of a Gentile. Paul didn’t just state the facts and let the chips fall where they may. Paul was concerned about the very manner in which he communicated because he was convinced that the way he preached had something to do with the effectiveness of his preaching.
Consider the testimony of Acts 14:1:
Now at Iconium [Paul and Barnabas] entered together into the Jewish synagogue and spoke in such a way [οὕτως ὥστε] that a great number of both Jews and Greeks believed (1 Cor 14:1).9
The conversion of both Jews and Gentiles is predicated not merely on the mere fact that Paul and Barnabas preached the gospel but on the manner in which they preached the gospel—they preached “in such a way” or, as the NIV renders it, “so effectively.”
This is one reason why seminaries offer homiletics classes and not just theology classes. Good preachers don’t just need to know good exegesis and theology. They need to learn how to communicate effectively to their target audience.
I like the way one pastor puts it: “Does it pass the Bubba test?” In other words, “Did Bubba get something out of the sermon? Did Bubba understand what you were saying?”
Now I realize the need to make some qualifications:
The challenge of diversity
Not everybody in our church is like “Bubba.” Nor is our entire congregation made up of 70-year old widows or of 8th grade children. And though you and I are probably ministering to congregations mainly made up of “Gentiles” rather than “Jews,” many of our people, like the Jews, have grown up in religious homes where the Bible is viewed as God’s word (though this situation is quickly changing in our post-Christian society).
So when we seek to apply this principle of adapting or accommodating our communication, we have to remember that there probably will be some diversity in the audience we’re addressing. Moreover, there are people outside our church membership that we want to reach. And there are definitely ways in which they’re different than we are.
The challenge is the fact that we cannot accommodate our communication to all the diversity simultaneously. When we use an illustration that connects with the 70-year old widow, we’ll probably go “over the head” of the 8th grader. When we allude to some recent movie or video game to illustrate a point for the young people, the older folks may give us a blank stare. And there will be times when “Bubba” comes to us after the sermon because he didn’t understand something we said.
So we can’t address all the diversity in our target audience all at once. But we can labor to address the diverse groups we’re trying to reach by varying our vocabulary, illustrations, and applications.
The reality of commonality
In seeking to be sensitive to the diversity of our audience, whether believers or non-believers, we need to remember the reality of human commonality. In other words, even though our audience may consist of people diverse in terms of age, social strata, education, ethnicity, and culture, they’re all part of the same human family.
And as rational human beings created in the image of God (Gen 1:26), everyone in our audience will to some degree understand such culturally “transcendent” ideas as God, creation, man, sin, judgment, the need for forgiveness and reconciliation. They’ve all been “hardwired” with a sense of deity, a conscience, and a drive for meaning and fulfillment.10 As a result, the truths of the gospel, when adequately communicated, will resonate to some degree with the soul of any human being who’s capable of sensory perception and rational reflection. I think this is the reality Pastor John Piper had in view when he cautions, “Don’t Contextualize the Gospel.”11
With these qualifications in view, how does all of this apply to us as individuals and as a local church?
We’ll attempt to answer this question in the next installment of this series.
- Further support is offered in my series “Contextualization & Church Ministry.” [↩]
- To be precise Hebrew is classified as a “Northwest Semitic” language that shares much in common with Ugaritic and Amarna Canaanite. See Bruce K. Waltke and M. O’Connor, An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1990), 5-9. [↩]
- A Commentary on the Whole Bible, 6 vols. (Reprint, Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell, n.d.), 853. All commentators agree that the whole passage is stressing the intelligibility and accessibility of God’s revelation to Israel. Some, however, interpret the phrase “in your mouth and in your heart” as allusion to the Israelite’s memorization and recitation of the law (see Deut 6:4ff.) rather than a reference to language and mental capacity. But even if this latter interpretation is correct, it assumes that God has communicated to them in a language they understand. [↩]
- For a summary of the history and characteristics of NT Koine Greek, see David Alan Black, Linguistics for Students of New Testament Greek: A Survey of Basic Concepts and Applications (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1988), 156-62. [↩]
- Of course, Paul wasn’t denying the “spiritual inability” of the unbeliever to truly understand and savingly embrace gospel truth. But this is not so much an ontological inability as it is 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’m not suggesting that we have to employ offensive profanities or coarse expressions simply because such language may make up part of the vocabulary of people we’re trying to reach. I’m thinking of the diverse idioms, and colloquial expressions that characterize different regions and social groups within English speaking parts of the world. [↩]
- For useful analyses of Paul’s preaching to the Greek philosophers in Acts 17, see D. A. Carson, The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 496-501; Greg Bahnsen, Always Ready: Directions for Defending the Faith (Atlanta, GA: American Vision/Texarkana, AR: Covenant Media Foundation, 1996), 235-73; Dennis Johnson, The Message of Acts in the History of Redemption (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1997), 194-201; K. Scott Oliphint, The Battle Belongs to the Lord: The Power of Scripture for Defending Our Faith (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2003), 143-73. [↩]
- For a helpful overview of the continuity and contrasts of Paul’s preaching in Acts, see Keller, Center Church, 112-14. For a more thorough analysis, see Jay E. Adams, Audience Adaptations in the Sermons and Speeches of Paul, vol. 2 in Studies in Preaching (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1976). [↩]
- J. A. Alexander remarks, “So spake is commonly explained to mean, in so remarkable a manner, with such force, warmth, unction, or assistance of the Spirit.” A Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, 2 vols. (1857; reprint, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1963), 2:46. [↩]
- According to Scripture, man’s constitution as the imago Dei includes an innate awareness of their Creator (Rom 1:18-21) and a sense of right and wrong (Rom 1:32; 2:14-15), which OT scholar Meredith Kline appropriately refers to as “the sense of deity in the imperative mode.” Kingdom Prologue: Genesis Foundations for a Covenantal Worldview (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2006), 62. Kline also refers to man’s innate drive for meaning and fulfillment as an “eschatological … aspiration implanted in man’s heart with his existence as God’s image” (92). It’s possible that Solomon is alluding to this eschatological drive when he asserts that God has placed “eternity in man’s heart” (Eccl 3:11). [↩]
- This is the title of a video excerpt from a sermon Piper is preaching from Romans 5, which may be accessed on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aVjPhSTSNYM. Piper isn’t denying the need to communicate the gospel in the language and thought forms of the target audience. But he’s underscoring the fact that some biblical truths intrinsic to the gospel are culturally transcendent and common to humanity. For another brief article that stresses the need to balance the diversity of humans with the commonness of humans, see Tim Chester’s “The Limitations of Contextualization,” accessed January 7, 2013 on the Internet: http://timchester.wordpress.com/2012/11/27/the-limitations-of-contextualization/. [↩]