What Are We Saying?

Cringe worthy church signs are all too familiar, the person behind this sign probably did not even give it a second look because obviously “Jesus cares”. (If you are looking for good church signs try here.) This sign represents a real problem in Christian circles– sometimes we simply do not know how to communicate. There are two agents in communication the speaker/writer and the hearer/reader and for effective communication to happen the signal between them must be clear. I might be able to write a brilliant blog post (the jury is still out), but that post can only be effective as communication if the person reading it understands it in a productive way. Each of us understands this concept implicitly when trying to explain even the simplest concept to a small child, one must stop again and again to explain ideas an adult takes for granted or use a string of small words which are on the child’s level. However, many times Christians fail to consider this truth when dealing with those outside the Church, and the result is a world who thinks “Jesus Scares” when we are trying to communicate “Jesus Cares.”

There are many ways in which the church fails to communicate effectively the love of Jesus; often when this happens people are left with the impression Christians are cold spiteful people who do not truly understand love. How can this be, because though often well meaning, Christians fail to consider how their words will be taken by someone who is outside the church. The illustration that pops to my mind when I think about this failure to communicate is the number of people who want a pastor to “preach on sin and hell”. Not that either of these subjects is un-biblical or should not be preached on occasion, but that is not usually what is meant when a congregate makes this comment. Typically, the congregant wants people (other than him or herself) to consider and repent of their sin and to be frightened of hell. This type of preaching has a long tradition within the United States. Jonathan Edwards’ famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” was responsible for the “conversations” of many in New England. Even today many in certain traditions will claim they “came to Christ” because of such hellfire and brimstone preaching. But such sermons often turn off the very people who are supposed to hear them, and are considered to have the most need of hearing them. Yet few Christians are willing to consider this fact as they look to evangelize.

The truth is a far better strategy for reaching people is to follow Paul’s model by pointing out,

Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. 1 Timothy 1:15

The reality of interpersonal communication is that if I do not feel that you know me, will not stand by me, or do not understand my struggles I am not going to be open to you calling out my faults. Likewise, Christians cannot expect those outside of the church to embrace a message which points out their flaws while dismissing the flaws of those within the church. A more effective communication system would be to point out my sins and faults which have been forgiven, and to discuss the areas where I still need the work of grace in my life.

I think about it like this, Jesus says,

You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. Matthew 7:5

I think we can take this verse to also mean, show others you are removing the plank in your eye before you talk about the need for them to remove the specks from their eyes. Or perhaps we can think of it like this,

At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
“No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.” John 8:9-11

In this passage those passing judgment on the woman– who was sinning– wanted to direct the conversation, and thus the judgment, away from her; Jesus will not allow this and forces those looking to establish a sinless community to look inward. Jesus does not dismiss the woman’s guilt, he forgives it, but he is harsh on those who want to overlook their own guilt to punish her. Understanding that Jesus calls out the sins of those trying to follow God and not the Romans (or even the “sinners” of his day) should cause us to pause and consider how we talk about sins inside and outside the church today.

I know I have said this before but, it is easy to scream “abortion is a sin” but often that message comes off as hypocritical to those outside the Church. The reason is the community making this claim calls themselves “Pro-Life” but does not take measures to help the life they do not want aborted. How can we say we care about the unborn when we are not taking steps to provide for those who have been born. It is radically inconsistent to preach that all pregnancies must be carried to term and then to not provide for those children. If you love them enough to see them born, love them enough to provide for them. How can we expect the world to listen when we call Bill Clinton immoral but consistently protect Donald Trump and Jerry Falwell Jr.? If morality matters then it matters, and our message must be clear and consistent showing the most severity to those who most strongly represent the Church. The message of 1 Timothy is precisely this, our own leaders need to be held to the highest standards.

I know there are some who might read this and think, “As long as I proclaim the truth God will work to win souls.” This and similar statements are simply the Christianized “just sayin'”, as if by hiding behind “the truth” we can say whatever we like. No, how we package the message is vital. How my wife addresses my bad habits determines whether I am defensive or receptive. Likewise how we package the Gospel message matters. If we fail to think about how we sound to those outside the Church we have failed to follow Paul who says,

I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. 1 Corinthians 9:22

All things to all people means communicating in ways that help them understand the message, not in ways which repulse them. If I am want people to listen to my message I have to begin by helping them where they are, including sharing a message which they can hear and accept.

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