Have you ever been misunderstood? Often the words that issue from our mouths are not the words heard by our listeners. I recall speaking with a student who was working to finish a research paper. I asked her in my Northeastern Arkansas vernacular, “How much do you ‘like’ to be done?” She responded, “I haven’t finished yet, but I’ll be happy when I do!” I repeated, “But how much do you ‘like’ to finish?” We stared at each other for a few seconds, not realizing we were using different meanings of the word like. She mistakenly thought that I was asking whether she enjoyed being done with her paper, but I was actually trying to ask how many pages she lacked to complete it. Although we shared the same language, we did not share understanding.
This phenomenon is present in conversations around the world, and it can be dangerous when it affects our gospel communication. Thankfully we can all recommit to the principles of God’s Word and of clear communication in our efforts to fully recover the impact of gospel communication.As we seek to be clear presenters of the gospel, the words of the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 2:1–5 are a great guiding resource:
“And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.”
This passage reveals Paul’s intent that there is only one message that can transform human hearts: the message of the cross of Christ. The normative pattern for Paul and the other apostles in the New Testament was a consistent presentation of the gospel of Christ. Christ’s life, death, and resurrection were the hallmarks of the church’s message. This must define our communication as Christians today. But although the message of Paul and the apostles did not change, it is clear that they crafted their messages intentionally to reach specific audiences. For example, Paul approached the gospel in different ways in Thessalonica and then at Mars Hill. Acts 17:1–3 reads, “They came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews…On three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead” (emphasis mine). In the synagogue, Paul started with the scriptures, but later in Acts 17, Paul spoke to a very different audience in Athens. He started not with the scriptures but with their cultural artifacts: “He saw that the city was full of idols…So Paul standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: ‘Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, “To the unknown god.” What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you’” (Acts 17:16, 22–23, emphasis mine). Paul then proclaimed Christ to them. The starting point for both groups was very different, but the destination was the same: the gospel of Christ. Like Paul, we must be intentional in our efforts to persuade others of the truth claims of Christ and scripture, not simply relying on the skills of rhetoric but having those skills sharpened and transformed by the Holy Spirit.
In his book Christ-Centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon, Bryan Chapell points out, “Craft cannot make a message powerful if one’s heart and character do not validate its truths.” Certainly preaching is a craft of persuasion, as the Apostle Paul points out in 2 Corinthians 5:11: “Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others. But what we are is known to God, and I hope it is known also to your conscience.” But persuasion is also about our everyday calling to the effective communication of gospel truths. As echoed by the voice of the wise man in Proverbs 16:23, “The heart of the wise makes his speech judicious and adds persuasiveness to his lips.”
Preaching from the pulpit is a strategic act of persuasion, but all of our speech should be used for the propagation of the gospel. The difference between the goals of gospel communication and persuasion alone is this: persuasion by itself centers on behavior modification, but the point of gospel communication is regeneration, or the changing of a person’s heart—something that only God can do through His Word.
This is something Paul points out clearly in his opening admonition to the Thessalonians: “For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction” (1 Thes 1: 4–5). Whether spoken from the pulpit or in the marketplace, then, the pervasive lack of clarity of our age demands that our gospel communications be CLEAR:
Centered in Christ, the gospel, and the text of scripture: If these elements aren’t at the center of what we communicate, then we run the risk of relegating Christianity to just another self-help mantra. We must communicate Christ and his Good News from every text of scripture, because not to do so reduces the Holy Word of God to a mere collection of inspirational principles rather than what it is—a book of transformational power.
Intentional in Language: Jesus gives this warning in Matthew 12:36–37: “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give an account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” How often do we throw about careless clichés long devoid of meaning in an effort to communicate the timeless truth of the gospel of Christ? Using such vague clichés can be lazy: “If God brings you to it, he’ll bring you through it.” “Where God closes a door, he opens a window.” While these may be true, we’ve heard them so often they lack resonance. The greatest message ever shared with humanity is worthy of our best efforts to communicate that message. Choose words that will effectively and powerfully demonstrate the simplicity of Christ.
Empathetic in expression: As effective gospel communicators, we must craft our message to meet the perceived needs and deep concerns of those in our audiences. Whether our audience consists of one or one hundred, our fallen world has resulted in broken people in need of a Savior. We must see and feel the brokenness in every aspect of our communities and relationships, leveraging the Good News to restore what has been broken.
Action-oriented: The gospel of Christ demands a response from all those who hear it. As communicators of the gospel, it is our responsibility to ask for that response. It is not enough to share news and leave the hearers without a path to apply the gospel to every area of their lives. When crafting effective gospel communication, remember to always include an appropriate action to guide your listeners in their response.
Reflective in nature: Effective gospel messages challenge both the speaker and the listener to reflect on their own lives and areas where the gospel of Christ has yet to fully penetrate. Reflection is a gift of the gospel, calling us to more fully surrender every part of ourselves to Christ. We have been entrusted as heralds of the King of Kings to declare his message. This is both a privilege and responsibility that calls upon us to speak with Holy Spirit–inspired clarity to an ever-increasingly ambiguous world.
The Spirit of God charges us to communicate the gospel deliberately, productively, and substantively.
As Christians I believe we have a responsibility to govern our words and deeds as they communicate the gospel, but also how we consume and evaluate the gospel messages we hear from those entrusted to shepherd our journey. It is important to keep ourselves apprised to the trends in preaching and to be informed to critically evaluate what is being shared via our church pulpits. Among the resources helpful to me is the little book Why Johnny can’t preach; The Media have shaped the messengers by T. David Gordon. Here are a couple of excerpts; “Moralism occurs whenever the fundamental message of the sermon is “be good; do good” (or some specific thereof). Whenever the fundamental purpose of the sermon is to improve the behavior of others, so that Christ in his redemptive office is either denied or largely overlooked, the sermon is moralistic. Such moralism is so common in American pulpits that when in ordinary conversation one individual attempts to correct another’s behavior, it is not uncommon to hear the reply: “Oh, so you’re going to preach to me now, are you?” People have obviously come to associate preaching with moral improvement (or moral scolding); they do not associate preaching with a proclamation of the fitness of Christ’s person and the adequacy of his work to save to the uttermost those who come to God through him.” How many sermons have you heard through the years that would fall into this category?
How about this one? “How-to preaching, like moralism, pushes the person and work of the redeeming Christ out of the realm to the hearer’s consideration. The hearer’s utter inability to rescue himself from sin, and Christ’s utter ability to do precisely that, would not be at home in such a homiletical environment. The how-to sermon implies that human behavior is not a matter of an intractable will, not a matter of total depravity, not a matter of rebellion against the reign of God the Creator, but merely a matter of technique.” The How-to sermon seems to be very popular these days with titles like “seven steps to a new you” or “Improving your (insert your current problem here)”. From finances to marriage to children, it seems that these “How-to” sermons are ubiquitous. Why do you think this is? Why is preaching of the Bible perceived to be so boring and irrelevant? Why does everything have to be entertaining and centered on meeting the needs of the person rather than satisfying the intention of God’s word and His glory? Perhaps these questions will equip you to better evaluate what you are hearing from those claiming giftedness and authority to teach and preach the Bible.
And may we all rise to the challenge given to us in Ephesians 4:29: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.”