Learn the Language

In Leonard Sweet’s book Aqua Church 2.0 he refers to a quote from French philosopher Voltaire in reference to a communication philosophy:

“If you would speak to me, you must first learn my language.”[1]

In this chapter, Sweet analyzes how the church must be willing to adapt to the changing technological world around it. How often does a mission worker enter a new field without learning the language of his or her context? We must ask ourselves the same question: “Are we speaking the same language?”

I have worked with communication for several years. It is my responsibility to work with a team to communicate with a constituency in ways that will be understandable. Unfortunately, I have seen many churches and church-related organizations lack the needed communication skills to effectively communicate with a changing world. Often, churches are not thinking about things like websites and social media—largely for good reason. Many churches are trying to focus on relational ministry and connecting with people in personal ways. People are the reason that we do ministry. We have a passion and conviction to share the hope of the gospel with people.

In order to speak the language of the changing world around us, I think there are some important ideas we have to keep in mind. While I believe that embracing new technology and methods are essential to speaking the language of the world around us, I want to lay down some elemental ideas that will help the global church become more effective in its pursuits of communicating the gospel.  I have collected ideas on communication, missiology, leadership, and theology from several different leaders in various disciplines. I believe that all of these ideas come back to the core idea of learning to speak the language of our world.

Reflect on the past and plan for the future

“The Christian church is always in the process of becoming; the church of the present is both the product of the past and the seed of the future.”[2]

Renown missiologist David Bosch refers to the theological work of Friedrich Schleiermacher when addressing the important value of cultural contextualization in mission work. He indicates that attempts to return to a more primitive church are flawed. Further expounding on Schleiermacher’s idea, he explains how the church is influenced by factors that make it impossible to achieve a “pristine past.”[3] Too often, we want to hold onto the past because of the rich value it has. As one who engages in historical studies, I can respect the desire to embrace earlier ministry methods. However, we have to remember that the church is constantly becoming something different than it was in the past. This does not mean that our theology changes, but our culture impacts the way we understand this theology. Thus, our methodology must also change. Until we recognize the important balance between past, present, and future, we risk the chance of being trapped in any one of those realms.

Listen better

“Everyone craves a good listener… Good listeners turn opposition to support, increase knowledge, enhance appreciation, and make peace in organizations.”[4]

I have heard it said that the ability to hold a conversation is a lost art form. The basic foundation of any good conversationalist is being able to listen well. The same can be said for an organization that wants to communicate with the world around it. The world may not recognize it, but it longs to be heard and understood. People feel a sense of belonging when they are heard. A communication strategy for a changing world should include a lot of listening.

Remember that technology is not the answer

“When used right, technology becomes an accelerator of momentum, not a creator of it.”[5]

In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins addresses how some companies have become truly great organizations. When analyzing several organizations and their use of technology, he realized that many executives rarely cited technology as the reason for their companies’ successes.[6] This is one of the most important things churches can remember when looking to incorporate new technology. It will not create momentum for your organization, but it can help it grow. An organization’s momentum starts with a vision that leads to action. The world does not want to hear what you have to say on social media if you do not have anything relevant for them to hear.

Keep it simple

“It’s hard to make ideas stick in a noisy, unpredictable, chaotic environment. If we’re to succeed, the first step is this: Be simple. Not simple in terms of ‘dumbing down’ or ‘sound bites.’ You don’t have to speak in monosyllables to be simple. What we mean by ‘simple’ is finding the core of the idea.[7]

We like verbosity. Especially in the church realm, we like to use overly-theological jargon. Some of this has a place, but it can get lost in transmission to the audience. Unfortunately, the idea of simplicity is often misunderstood, leading to a lesser gospel. When looking at the work of communication experts Chip and Dan Heath, they remind us that simplicity is about finding the core of the idea.

Be authentic

“Thanks to television, we’re consumed by the trivial. Thanks to the [i]nternet, we are drowning in a sea of information yet unable to truly communicate. And thanks to email, we live our lives under the compulsion that there’s an important message out there worth interrupting everything else to read. In a digital age, authenticity may be the ultimate scorecard for success.”[8]

The world is accustomed to seeing “fake” everywhere it looks. There is so little to trust in a world where “reality TV” is scripted, fake news runs rampant on social media, and cosmetic plastic surgery has become normative. In his admonition on the dangers of technology, Phil Cooke reminds us that authenticity is what needs to be our goal in this digital age. When churches try to create a certain image, while losing the authenticity of its identity, it sacrifices one of its most important assets. If your organization’s culture is so out-of-touch that you are creating a façade, you need to get to the core of changing your identity, not just putting a new coat of paint on the outside.

Invest in the hard work

“Change requires discussion, investigation, reflection, evaluation, and a solid biblical understanding. In our busy world today, we often fail to do this. We become stuck in our outdated ways of doing things, because change takes too much energy.”[9]

Bob Whitesel, one of my most formative seminary professors, discusses how difficult it can be for an organization to change. Many organizations do not change, because it requires hard work. We never learn to speak the language of the world around us because it hurts to adapt. If one studies the list of tasks involved with the change process previously mentioned, he or she may recognize that it is very tedious. But in order to be relevant to the world, we need to make sacrifices. Very specifically, this means that the global church needs to be thinking about how to reach a digital world.

This process is not easy and it involves looking at the core of our organization’s identity. It is not as easy as just building a new website—it is more about asking the question, “How will a website help us communicate with the world around us?” It means not just tweeting about every little idea that runs through one’s mind, but begs to ask the question, “What matters to people that do not know Jesus?” It is more complex than sending a witty email to a newcomer, but instead seeks to ask the question, “How can I learn to listen to a new person?” Learning to speak a new language is not simple, but it is the most important thing the church can do.

[1] Sweet, Leonard I. AquaChurch 2.0: piloting your church in today’s fluid culture. Colorado Springs, CO: David C Cook, 2008, 214.
[2] Bosch, David J. Transforming mission: paradigm shifts in theology of mission. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1991, 422.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Gangel, Kenneth O., and Samuel L. Canine. Communication and conflict management in churches and Christian organizations. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2002, 47.
[5] Collins, James C. Good to great: why some companies make the leap … and others don’t. New York, NY: HarperBusiness, 2001, 152.
[6] Ibid., 155.
[7] Heath, Chip, and Dan Heath. Made to stick: why some ideas survive and others die. New York: Random House, 2007, 27.
[8]  Cooke, Phil. Branding faith: why some churches and nonprofits impact culture and others don’t. Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 2008, 174.
[9] Whitesel, Bob. Preparing for change reaction: how to introduce change to your church. Indianapolis, IN: Wesleyan Pub. House, 2007, 111.

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