I read with interest over the Christmas period a number of tweets and blogs urging preachers to be ‘faithful’ with their Christmas messages – not to soft-sell, or succumb to the temptation to be funny or frivolous or whatever else might begin with ‘f’. Basically the call was to ‘give it to em straight’ with both barrels and trust the sovereignty of God. We’re the aroma of death so don’t expect or want ‘them’ to like you.
Now here’s my problem with some less than nuanced versions of the above: First it plays down human responsibility. Second it reduces what it means to be ‘faithful’. Third, it misunderstands the audience. John Stott famously talked about ‘double-listening’ – listening to the word and listening to the world. So when it comes to listening to the ‘world’ here’s the two things you need to know:
1. They don’t know anything
2. They think they know something
Let’s take those in turn. First, many people today know next to nothing about the Bible and the Gospel. They come from so far back that shared understanding between the preacher and unbelieving listener is at a minimum. So we have to ‘accommodate’ to be understood. Calvin picked up the rhetorician’s idea of accommodation to describe how the infinite God makes himself understood to idiots like us. All successful communication requires accommodation, and we have an awful lot of work to do. ‘Giving it to them straight’ misunderstands how far back people are – they won’t understand you – you won’t communicate successfully, and therefore you have to ask if you’ve been ‘faithful’ in the broader sense.
Second, they think they know something. Here’s the real problem. People already think they know all about Christianity, religion, the Bible, and the Gospel. They know what it’s all about – it’s about goody two shoes religious people who hate gays, bash bibles, and try hard to be goody-goodies so they can get to heaven. They know this, they are suspicious of it, and they don’t like it. It’s worse than Athens (Acts 17) – not only do they not know very much, they think they understand it perfectly. So Christians have got a lot of bad theology to unpick, and a lot of that happens in terms of manner and approach. If you’give it to ’em straight’ you’ll reinforce all the things they think they know. So not only did you fail to communicate the positive, you actually reinforced the negative – their false gospel – way to go. Is that really what it means to be ‘faithful’ in making the most of every opportunity?
In the next post I’ll expand on the idea that in communication manner trumps content, like it or not.