The Effective Communicator
Fuzzy Thinking, Confused Preaching and Cultural Traps
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins
Even though my experience should have wised me up after all these years, I still find myself surprised and amazed at the illogical attitudes some people have. Some people can make the strangest claims with no qualms. They seem unaware how illogical or nonsensical they sound!
What concepts do we carry unexamined behind our use of certain familiar words? Several years ago I saw a fascinating example of such ungrounded and confused thinking. A similarly mystified friend showed me a newspaper article about “preaching.”
The author was concerned with the use of various methods of spreading the gospel. In his comments, he reveals his confusion over the concept of preaching.
He starts out thus:
"Through the years, and it seems more so in recent times, we have been assailed by modern, and by extension, better, ways of carrying the gospel to the lost.” [Note that the writer begins with a focus on the good news (“gospel”) to the lost (those who have not believed on Jesus).]
Confused or Confusing?
This author is complaining about modern methods of communication being used to communicate the Christian message.
He seems to think radio and TV can’t be used for Christian purposes. Very interesting. This was intriguing and puzzling for me, since I had grown up in radio broadcasting and had worked in the broadcasting industry on two continents, and had contacts all over the world in Christian broadcasting in mission!
"What about radio and television? What about computers and compact disks? What about the electronic bulletin board and the information super highway? Can technology make what we do each Sunday at church obsolete, a pleasant reminder of the past, like a buggy whip or a model T. Will church services give in to something different? [Now he has shifted to focus on church services. He is confusing two different situations that require different communication strategies. How do computers and CDs conflict with church services?]
"We do not preach because churches have experimented over the years with various ways of spreading the gospel and settled on preaching as the best. We do not preach because preaching is thought to be a good idea or an effective technique.” [Now he is referring to preaching the Good News again.]
“The sermon has not earned its place in our worship service by providing its utility in comparison with other means of communication.” [Now he confusingly jumps back to the worship service of those who have already believed!]
Note that the writer is not presenting a Bible study or a theological study. He is just declaring his own preference. He has already made up his mind, but he now seeks a scripture to support his view: "In 2 Timothy 4:2 we are told simply to 'preach the word.'”
Note that this says nothing about how to “preach.” And he does not probe the meaning of the word. He interprets this passage to mean: “We are not called to investigate the new, or to implement the effective, but are called to lecture people in pews according to our tradition.”
It is interesting that nowhere does the writer investigate the meaning of the word “preach.” Nor does he ever tell us what he himself really means by the word. The Timothy passage has nothing to do with format of communication, either inside or outside the church.
But he is not done:
The writer then again expresses his confusion over the meaning of “preaching:"
"Preaching is characteristic of Christianity. No other religion makes a practice of assembling so regularly to hear such instruction and exhortation .” This last statement, first of all, reveals his ignorance of other religions. But note that the matters of instruction and exhortation in the church are different from “preaching the good news,” which is where he started this diatribe.
“Because of this, Christianity, as the Bible reveals it, stands or falls because of preaching.” But we still don’t know what“preaching” really means here. Has he confused method with content or content withlocation?
And the writer never says why the various media he mentions earlier are somehow not preaching. What is the basis of this limitation of method or place? And he does not seem to distinguish between believers and non-believers.
Most people know of the “Great Commission” (ref Matt 28:19-20). This says nothing about preaching. The focus there is simply to “make followers (“disciples”). No methods of communication are suggested.
The Effective Communicator must have a clear goal in mind. This starts with your audience. What do they know? What do you want them to know? What do they need to know. What do they want to know? Where do you need to go to communicate with them? What format of communication do you need to use to be heard (accepted and listened to) by them?!
Here are some pertinent questions:
Are you communicating for the first time with those who have never heard your message, information or news? Are you giving initial instruction to new believers? Are you teaching long-time members?
The next step is to find what methods or media of communication best reach that goal. Preaching, in the narrow cultural sense might be one of those methods for certain purposes in certain situations. But isn’t your goal to be understood? The method of communication must suit your audience.
To get their attention and keep their interest (so they will hear), the message must be communicated in a way they know. Are you going to be a responsible communicator? Will you make sense? We cannot say we've fulfilled our responsibility if we have not enabled them to hear (understand) the message.
The writer seems to have in mind a traditional, Western cultural concept of “preach.” He seems satisfied with his own cultural concepts that have arisen out of his cultural worldview. He overlays these ideas on the Bible.
This example of fuzzy thinking is all too common, when people do not stop to consider the actual sources of their ideas. They simply start with their ideas or preferences, then look for a Bible verse (with no regard to the topic it was actually talking about) that might “prove” what they think.
What a trap! It does not seem to occur to them that the Bible writers might have a different worldview than theirs!
The valid approach would rather be to look into the New Testament to discover the Biblical usage! The New Testament words translated “preach” all mean to “express in various ways,” but are not limited to what we traditionally think of as “preaching."
Biblical meanings of the Greek words translated “preach” mean variously:
spread good news, convey, make known, communicate.
The English word preach comes from old French, meaning to proclaim publicly . The original Latin word was prae-dicare, to speak before (others).
This Latin verb is a pre-Christian word, so it has nothing to do with speaking in a church building or even a Christian service. Besides, there weren’t any church buildings until in the 300s, after Christianity was recognized as a legal religion in the Roman Empire!
Task, not Method
None of these meanings prescribes the method. The focus is on the task, not on how to get it done. None of the biblical words limits the medium, the method or the place. Specifically, there is certainly no connotation of being limited to any of these situations:
Speaking formally in a church building
Speaking only to believers in worship
Speaking only for the purpose of teaching or exhortation
Teaching specific theological doctrines.
On the contrary, the intention is to communicate, proclaim, speak, convey ideas, beliefs, encouragement, etc., in any manner and any available place or situation. It is good news which is in focus and it is communication which is urged.
Where did our writer get his ideas? Maybe he just made them up? More likely he has inherited or imbibed a common cultural prejudice and does not even realize it. But the sad thing is that he assumes somehow that this anti-technology prejudice came from the Bible!
He blames the Bible for his confused idea of preaching! He also confuses speaking to believers gathered in worship with telling the Good News to someone who has not heard. This definitely does not recommend him as an Effective Communicator.
The Effective Communicator will keep in mind this broad, original meaning of “preach.” The term does not specify the media or the method.
The Effective Communicator uses any means, and the most effective means, for each specific situation, culture and individual. After all, isn’t the goal to make sense and be understood? Or do we just follow some rote format?
The Master Communicator
Based on an article originally published in the series “The Effective Communicator” in Focus on Communication Effectiveness, a cross-cultural communication newsletter, April 1995.
Rewritten for OJTR 1 November 2008
Last edited 22 May 2023
Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 1995, 2008, 2022 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Please give credit and link back. Other rights reserved.