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Monday, February 20, 2017

Media and the Gospel

“The medium is the message”, said the great philosopher of mass media, Marshall McLuhan.

It’s his most oft-quoted line, since it’s so often true. When you have a message to send, you’ve got to be very careful about the form (i.e. the “method” or “medium”) in which you’re sending it, or the message itself can become horribly distorted.

An Example

A few years ago, a local political party in our neighbourhood decided on a new election strategy. Instead of putting their efforts into boring, windy debates or expensive campaign posters, or listing it on dull trifold brochures that everybody just throws out, they would use a new medium — a comic book.

That’s right, folks: somebody thought that was a good idea.

In fact, a bunch of people must have thought it was a good idea, because it made it to press. I found one of these delightfully cheesy offerings in my mailbox.

Now, aside from the obvious association between comic books and childishness, there was quite a serious insult implicit in the idea that the electorate in our area was reduced to the intellectual level at which that medium would be appropriate. And I couldn’t tell you if they had any serious platform to offer: I was too busy laughing at their stupidity.

I’m sure Marshall McLuhan was rolling in his grave.

It’s not just the message — it’s how you deliver the message. In fact, what McLuhan knew is that the medium is always intrinsically part of the message. No — more than that — the medium can very easily become the whole message, as it did for that clueless political party. Their message made but one impression on me, and it wasn’t a good one.

Closer to Home

I think, though, we also need a revival of this awareness in the church. Since we preach the most important message in the world, we must always be very careful to preach it in such a way that we enhance that message, not impair it. And it is quite possible that if we don’t keep this in mind, we will not actually deliver the message we hope to at all.

Take a look at the picture at the top of this post. Is there anything about the message itself there that a Christian would say is wrong? And it’s well intended, no doubt. But consider where the message is, and how it was put there, and ask yourself: Is there any aspect of the way the message got there that stands to interfere with its reception? Was the person who did this really well advised to use that medium for that message? Or did he (or she) miss something important?

Application

I’m brought to think of this in regard to what we call “the gospel”. Now, here let me say that for the rest of this post I’m going to use the word “gospel” in a particular way. I’m not using it as scripture uses it, precisely — meaning the whole truth about the person and work of Jesus Christ — but rather as it has slipped into common usage, as merely referring to the message of “how to get saved”. Most Christians today use it that way, so I’m going to go along with that for the sake of the moment: but I’d be far happier if everybody used the word more scripturally.

I’m going to talk about the message (i.e. how to get saved) and the major media (plural of ‘medium’, not to be confused with ‘mass media’) by which we may choose to deliver it. I want to consider not just what message we deliver, but how we ought to deliver it. And I want to risk being rather critical of a great deal what we do in the name of “gospel preaching”, even though I know that is certain to set a good many teeth on edge. But I want to do all that with a view to something very positive: a better, more biblical view of what we are doing with the gospel. Ready?

To begin with, there are two major approaches to thinking about the gospel. The first one is dominant today, and particularly so among congregations with particular theological leanings and rather incomplete understandings of the gospel. The second way is what I see as the biblical ideal for sharing the gospel. And I’m happy to let you be the judge of whether or not I’m right.

Firstly, here’s what we tend to practice today:

The Proclamational Gospel

When we’re thinking this way, we focus on verses like Philippians 1:18, from which we take that it matters not how we get the message of salvation out, it only matters that we do. We do it loud and long, and we do it without regard for the medium in which it is being offered, because we are assuming that just the hearing of it is all that matters. Maybe we take John 5:25 as justification for our attitude. In any case, we think that so long as the message “gets out” we’re good.

Inconveniently for us, the Bible itself has declined to deliver the message of salvation in a nice, tidy package suitable for this kind of approach. So we feel we must help God get it right. We repackage the message as four or five tidy points: call them “The Five Steps” or “The Four Spiritual Laws”. In this revised form, we can make the message into a short presentation, visual or tract, and disperse it quickly and widely. After all, we’re proclaiming more than explaining, and we’ve got to move on.

The Good of It

There is something good in this. It is true that sometimes we don’t have time to employ all the scriptural methods of evangelism in a particular situation, and have time instead only for a “shorthand” kind of message. At that time, we probably do need to cut to the chase as soon as possible, since we lack the opportunity for any more. In that situation, a prĂ©cis of the sort described above is the best we can do.

It is also true that if the gospel is shared in any way, that’s a good thing — so long as what’s being shared is actually the gospel. Of course, there’s always the danger that we won’t really convey the message well if we’re in a rush; but we all live with limitations at times, and we have to take the opportunity we have, not the kind we wish we had. Sometimes the ideal is not possible.

Now, this is the best thing about the “proclamational” approach. Having the salvation message boiled down into four or five easily comprehensible steps is particularly helpful for the edification of those who are already Christians and need to glean a more concise understanding of the basics of salvation. In fact, I would say that every Christian should study these concepts at length and really grasp how they connect organically to form a whole conception of how one enters the new life. This knowledge can greatly empower Christians in checking themselves to see if they’ve actually managed to convey to another person the basis process by which a person comes into the kingdom of God: not a bad thing to have at all. But the good of it is really for the Christian, not so much for those to whom he or she is communicating: they may well need much more than that in order to understand.

The Bad of It

The proclamational approach comes with some rather serious drawbacks. Firstly, it is only a rush approach. The danger of that is that we will use it when we could do more. We will feel that we have “done the job” when all we have done is sketch out a list of things in no order found in scripture, and have left our audience more puzzled than informed.

Secondly, since it is a shorthand approach using passages entirely extracted from their context, we are presenting the message in a non-holistic way, detached from the stories, explanations and contexts that make sense of it all. Most importantly, our message has become detached from any profound knowledge of the person of Christ, and has become instead a sort of technique or method of getting people into heaven. We can then begin to think that this is all that matters, rather than realizing that we are offering an invitation into a complete relationship with a real person — and that such things cannot actually be had if you don’t know who the person in question is.

Now, finally, I have observed a very bad practical effect of overemphasis of the proclamational gospel. And here I must speak from personal experience. Congregations that get over-focused on the proclamational method often tend to become wearied of it. After all, it is not very deep in regard to relationship, and can become repetitive and technical. Worse than that, the hurried and unthoughtful manner of its delivery can become offensive to listeners every bit as much as its content.

So congregations gradually take to particular practices to combat this. One strategy they use is mass evangelism instead of personal contact: after all, mass evangelism by a more professional speaker is far easier than one-on-one, and is slicker in delivery as well.

Another strategy is to stop preaching externally, and take the gospel indoors, preaching it regularly on Sunday mornings inside the chapel or church building. It is then assumed that faithfulness in the gospel is being achieved by nothing more than “proclaiming” to a congregation the message they already know, and that the off-chance that a non-believer may wander in among them is sufficient to dispense with their duty to evangelize.

And when things reach this stage, proclamation has actually ceased … because of the proclamational view of the gospel.

An Important Note

Before I go on to the alternative, let me say something very clearly. I am in favour of proclamation. I am even in favour of the proclamational approach to the gospel — in every situation in which no more is possible. But I am critical of it in every situation in which more IS possible, and less is being done.

Is that clear enough? I hope so. Let us go on.

The Relational Gospel

If God had wished for the gospel to be no more than a proclaimed message, he simply could have proclaimed it. A voice from the sky, two tablets of stone (actually, one would have done), a singular prophet, or a book all by itself would have been sufficient to proclaim a bare message. But God did not do that.

It was not enough to have the Word: the Word had to become flesh and live among us. Jesus Christ had to come in the flesh. There had to be a real, embodied person, and he would have to do a great deal more than talk. He would live among people, touch them and be touched by them, speak with them as beloved and friends, or implore them as his own lost sheep. He would embody all that God the Father was right in their very presence. The Word would be made flesh … fleshed out as a real human being. The medium and the message would become identical.

Not only that, he would not just speak but would verify his words with his actions, and would put his very own body on the line to make that message real. He would enter into a relationship of vulnerability and commitment with those who would despise him, betray him and tear his flesh off his body. He would not just say the message: he would be it.

And after his resurrection, he would call others to become his body on earth, to enact in their flesh the truth of his gospel, and to call in their flesh others into actual, embodied relationship to him. Again, he did not merely leave a message: he left an incarnate message, a message-in-the-flesh. And that is what we are, in relation to his gospel.

We are the medium of the message. Thus we cannot simply broadcast the Lord’s words and leave it at that. We are to incarnate the truth of those words in all we do, manifest them in our flesh to the world, and speak them from our lips as well.

The true gospel, the complete gospel, the holistic, integrated gospel, is a combination of powerful words of salvation plus the physical presence and commitment of human actors upon those words. It is a call borne by those who put themselves on the line in real, embodied relationships with the lost — who come to all who rightfully belong to God, whether they receive the message or not — and dwell among them attesting to the glory of the Father through Jesus Christ his Son.

The Tragedy of Mere Proclamation

When we can do that, mere proclamation is never enough. In fact, to opt for mere proclamation when genuine relationality is possible is actually unfaithfulness to the gospel. To preach in shorthand when opportunities for more eloquent communication abound, to close our homes and hearts when they could be open and available to the lost, to cloister ourselves with only Christian friends when we could be welcoming those whom Christ loves but who do not yet know him, or to refuse to put our money, our homes, our jobs, our families and our own bodies on the line in order to incarnate the gospel to others … well, that’s just wrong.

Right message: wrong medium.

And that’s the tragedy of the proclamational view of the gospel: far too often it’s really just a way to duck our obligation to be relational and incarnational with the gospel. It encourages us to stand too far back, to extract who we are from what we are saying, to separate our lips from our lives, and to divorce the message from the medium in which the Lord wants it delivered.

The Point

I think we’ve got to go back to our deepest assumptions about the gospel. Is it merely a sort of “magic message” that we set loose on the world independent of our role as agents of that message, or do we have a greater responsibility to incarnate the message we preach? I think the answer to that is obvious. And yet it’s surprising how many of our current practices are opposite to it.

Do we focus our evangelistic efforts on mass programs or Sunday in-church meetings, or are we really earnest about helping each and every Christian in our congregation to become the embodiment of that message to their neighbourhoods, their associates, their acquaintances and their friends in the unsaved world? Can we continue our conventional evangelistic practices, so many of which “professionalize” the delivery of the message and take it out of the hands of ordinary believers, and reasonably expect any change for the better?

I think not. I think what we’ve got to do, so far as the local church is concerned, is stop doing the pseudo-evangelism thing, and start doing more and better edification for the Christians, to equip them to “be” Christ to the world, instead of taking their ministry away from them and giving it to our “experts” and our institutions.

Now that’s going to bug some people. They’re going to object, “Can’t we do both?” I think not. I think the mental shift required of people is so great that so long as we keep our conventional institutions of evangelism there is no reasonable prospect they will be able to make the jump. If we show people that only “experts” and “professionals” can really evangelize, but tell them that they ought to be evangelizing for themselves, there’s no reason for them to believe us. They’ll hear our words, but pay more attention to what we are doing.

The medium is the message, you see.

So let’s stop mixing our media and our message. Let’s stop just talking about the gospel, or even just proclaiming it when we can do much better: and let’s start backing the message up with our lives.

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