Being mindful of how we communicate the Gospel to others can help three groups of people: 1) the unchurched, who are not familiar with Christianese in the first place 2) those who may have been hurt by certain people in the Church, and 3) Christians who are still connecting with others but who need to hear the message in a slightly different/new way or who haven’t heard certain aspects of it before – which is very possible these days. So, basically, it helps all of us!
The first step in communicating to these groups is to know what your message is. I know this may sounds rudimentary, but too often it is overlooked in sermon preparation. What are you trying to say?
The second step is understanding your target audience. I know we hope to never perceive our churches or communities as mere “audiences” (as if this is performance-based or as if they are not active contributors to the Body as well.) But when I say “target audience” I mean in reference to communication theory – the people you seek to reach! The biggest, most financially successful companies in the U.S. are such, in part, because they have shed millions of dollars a year in coming to understand their target customer. We should have the same drive and ambition in striving to know and understand the people that God has called us to reach for His Kingdom.
Spending time with your target audience helps you know how to speak their language.
And how that may look may be different for all of us. One way that should be the same no matter who we are is the spending of time with the people we are ministering to. When I was youth pastoring and teaching kids in school, they would often (because of rapport) clue me into what “new” terms or phrases they came up with over the summer. I became familiar with their vocab level in general and considered it as I did my sermon preparation for the week lest I use a word that a majority of them would be unfamiliar with. I’m telling you, this is not easy work; but if you mine the Word and spend time in sermon preparation, you will reach….
Know your target audience. Don’t be cheesy; but if you take the time to know them, it will come off as natural to you.
In Acts 17:22-31, Paul does not open to these Greek thinkers and philosophers (the “unchurched”) with rhetoric from his own Hebrew religious tradition but rather begins by talking about their Greek gods. He goes into their culture, into their everyday mindset and speaks the truth in love to them in a way that they can understand and that they can relate to:
“Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’”
Now the apostle uses this point as a launching point into the Gospel:
“What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you….”
He even goes so far as to use a couple of their own poets and voices, Epimenides and Aratus, in his sermon when he says, “In him we live and move and have our being” and “For we too are his offspring.” These are used to elaborate on the points that a) the Lord is near to each of us and wants to be found and b) since we are God’s offspring “we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals.”
Read this passage and see for yourself how this apostle learned their culture, how he used certain aspects of them to translate the message of the Kingdom whereby at the end of the journey several Greeks became followers of Christ.
[Question of the day: Where is the line between compromising and communicating?]
– Stephen M. Ross