Here are a few things I’ve observed regarding how individual Christians, or Christian preachers and leaders, fail to connect well with people different from them. The theme through all of these is being conscious of the person hearing us. In many ways, this is the outworking of the golden rule in the area of communication and persuasion. But we often seem to be tragically and wretchedly thoughtless about the other person in our evangelism!
These things affect our ability to connect, especially across larger differences of culture or demographic. But if we are leaders, they also decrease the confidence of others to invite their friends and acquaintances to the ministry events we lead:
1. Not Being Clear
Clarity is a great act of loving service to the other person. Note how 1Corinthians 14, with its discussion of intelligibility, comes after the great chapter on love. I love another person by striving to understand and be understood. If we have ever felt excluded and alone while people around us have cheerfully spoken in a language that is foreign to us—failing to try to include us—we know what this is like.
When it comes to talking about God and Christ, are we clear? I don’t just mean avoiding jargon so that our words are comprehensible. I mean, are our sentences and paragraphs clear? Sadly in our conversations, testimonies and sermons, our thoughts are jumbled, imprecise, sloppy, hard to follow and clumsy. Striving to think clear thoughts and express them with clear words is a labour of love for our hearers.
Clarity should not be confused with brevity or simplicity. There are plenty of brief, simple but hazy sermonettes out there. There are plenty of rich, complex, but crystal clear sermons. The key is having a clear sense of the different ideas we are trying to communicate and how they relate to one another. Things become confusing when ideas blur into one another; where one thing flows to the next. Clarity is sushi; confusion is goulash.
Nor should clarity be confused with technical pedantry. A poem can be clear, in its central thrust, while being evocative and symbolic. A testimony can be full with umms and aahs and sort-ofs while telling a person’s spiritual story with truth and beauty. What clarity looks like will differ depending on the particular type of communication is taking place.
Clarity is a powerful thing. I am struck by how a powerful and effective evangelist who communicates with clarity can still win-through, despite a lack of local knowledge or cultural contextualization. Clarity has its own power that cuts across all sorts of divides.
2. Not Calling for Response
The gospel is a message with relevance. Part of its content and significance lies in what it requires of us. To leave this call for response unexpressed is to fail to connect well with others. There is a certain kind of comprehension that comes with seeing the consequences of something. We might not fully appreciate what something is until we grasp what it means. That was definitely the case for me. As a teenager, I only grasped the nature of the gospel when I grasped the radical and all-consuming consequences of the gospel.
Sadly some talk about the gospel in an abstract, removed, talking-about-the-gospel way. This was something that astonished and irritated me as a young convert. I would hear ministers say things like:
“And of course we know that the apostle declares that all are under the power of sin. Which is why the atonement must take place to deal with our sin and the wrath of God. And we are reminded of the great hymn…”
This is running commentary one step removed from the text. But true, clear proclamation explains both the text and its ramifications to those who are listening.
What is true of preaching is also true of general conversation. It is safer to discuss Christian theology and philosophy in the abstract. There are times when that is the conversation we are able to have. But if we really want to connect with people about the gospel, we need to eventually swivel from what Christians believe, to what Christians believe everyone—including the person we are talking to—should do about it. This point in a conversation is often very powerful in grabbing someone’s attention and connecting with them.
Don’t just tell people about the gospel. Tell them the gospel: God’s great pronouncement to a fallen human race in these last days.
3. Not Having a Clear Idea of What The Response Should Be
Sometimes it seems to me, the Christian preachers and personal evangelists haven’t really thought about the specific individual people in front of them to whom they are speaking. Who are they? What does the word of God say to them in particular?
One sign of this misjudgment might be a premature application that pushes too hard on unconvinced, first-time listeners—driving them away instead of drawing them closer. Those listening end up rejecting your aggressive manner rather than the substance of your message. In a post-Christian or biblically-illiterate context, we do need to explain that the general response that the gospel demands is that all people everywhere repent. But then we need to move from this general fact to a particular response required of our first-time hearers—perhaps, for example, that they should come back to hear more (c.f. Acts 17:32).
A bombastic application, that no-one—not even the preacher—really believes, loses credibility for the message. When we play at being hard-hitting and ‘challenging’ we often lose people, or maybe worse still, win them over for the wrong reasons. Of course, there is a place for a certain kind of direct rhetorical hyperbole, as the Lord Jesus himself uses. But even this requires us to be clear that this is what we are doing!
An imprecise application, that doesn’t push on the particular sin and false religion of our hearers ends up tinged with unreality. Can we clearly proclaim the gospel to an angry and violent man without sooner or later pointing out that he must repent of his violence? Can we preach the Lordship of Christ to the Hindu, without clarifying that Jesus will not share his glory with any other so-called god?
A mismatched application, that denounces the ashamed sinner, or woos the pompous hypocrite, or debates with the arrogant fool, will not serve them spiritually, no matter how true its content might be. We need justice and mercy; wisdom to apply the word boldly but gently.
The message that connects is the message that gets to the heart of the matter. This might look like simple—blunt straight talking. Or it might look like sophisticated and penetrating analysis. But to connect well, we should strive for a kind of unsettling clarity.
We can and should give ourselves to careful sociological and philosophical reflection on the people we are seeking to reach. We should reflect on the structures of our ministries, the length of our sermons and the style of our music. But a powerful and foundational matter is this matter of clarity. Mastering clear gospel explanation and application, by the grace of God, will enable us to effectively connect with a whole range of people from a whole range of backgrounds.
Photo: woodleywonderworks, flickr