The Communication Canyon

In my opening article for this website, I wrote about how applying the Bible seems like crossing a canyon. I named this site “Canyon Crossers” for that reason.

Applying the Bible is not the only canyon to cross in living for Jesus Christ. Interpreting the Bible can, at times, feel like crossing a canyon and I intend to write about that in future articles. Another canyon that we face is the canyon of communication. This article will begin discussion on that issue.

I have never read the fiction of Stephen King and, from what I’ve heard about his writing, it seems wise for Christians to avoid reading his fiction. Many years ago, however, I heard King interviewed about a non-fiction book he had recently published called On Writing – A Memoir of the Craft. I was interested in what King said in that interview, bought the book, and read it rapidly. The first part of the book was King’s autobiography which I found fascinating. The second part of the book was some helpful advice he had for other writers.

In that second part of the book, Stephen King wrote that writing is telepathy, meaning that it is a means of transferring a vision or an idea from one brain to another. He explained:

And here we go— actual telepathy in action. You’ll notice I have nothing up my sleeves and that my lips never move. Neither, most likely, do yours. Look— here’s a table covered with a red cloth. On it is a cage the size of a small fish aquarium. In the cage is a white rabbit with a pink nose and pink-rimmed eyes. In its front paws is a carrot-stub upon which it is contentedly munching. On its back, clearly marked in blue ink, is the numeral 8. Do we see the same thing? We’d have to get together and compare notes to make absolutely sure, but I think we do. There will be necessary variations, of course: some receivers will see a cloth which is turkey red, some will see one that’s scarlet, while others may see still other shades. (To color-blind receivers, the red tablecloth is the dark gray of cigar ashes.) Some may see scalloped edges, some may see straight ones. Decorative souls may add a little lace, and welcome— my tablecloth is your tablecloth, knock yourself out. Likewise, the matter of the cage leaves quite a lot of room for individual interpretation. For one thing, it is described in terms of rough comparison, which is useful only if you and I see the world and measure the things in it with similar eyes. It’s easy to become careless when making rough comparisons, but the alternative is a prissy attention to detail that takes all the fun out of writing. What am I going to say, “on the table is a cage three feet, six inches in length, two feet in width, and fourteen inches high”? That’s not prose, that’s an instruction manual. The paragraph also doesn’t tell us what sort of material the cage is made of— wire mesh? steel rods? glass?— but does it really matter? We all understand the cage is a see-through medium; beyond that, we don’t care. The most interesting thing here isn’t even the carrot-munching rabbit in the cage, but the number on its back. Not a six, not a four, not nineteen-point-five. It’s an eight. This is what we’re looking at, and we all see it. I didn’t tell you. You didn’t ask me. I never opened my mouth and you never opened yours. We’re not even in the same year together, let alone the same room . . . . except we are together. We’re close. We’re having a meeting of the minds.

King, Stephen (2000-10-03). On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft (pp. 105-106). Scribner. Kindle Edition.

That paragraph describes both how we are able to communicate meaningfully with each other and how what you receive from my communication can differ from what I think I sent. There are gaps–canyons, if you will–that have to be crossed in order for communication to happen. Some of the articles I intend to write for this site will address how to cross the communication canyon. Since I am a pastor who teaches weekly, these articles will focus on effective teaching, but the communication principles will apply to all kinds of communication.

The Three Way Tug

Photo Credit: Payton

As a pastor who teaches God’s word more than once a week, I find myself wrestling weekly with three competing tensions: faithfulness, relevance, and shepherding. These three tensions feel, at times, like a three-way tug.

The first tension, faithfulness, comes from my desire to remain true to the text of Scripture. One thing I would never want to do is to distort the message of the Bible. Because I believe that the Bible is the authoritative message from God, my most basic commitment is to be faithful to what the Bible says.

I also feel a tug not only to remain true to the text of Scripture, but also to explain how the passage of Scripture is relevant to the modern audience. While the tension toward faithfulness to the text comes from my convictions about Scripture, this second tension comes from the people in my church. Every congregation wants to “get something out of” the message. I feel like many people come to church asking the unspoken question, “Why is Pastor Brian taking forty minutes to tell me about these verses?” I think it is a good question and I want my message to give them a great answer.

In addition to the tensions caused by the text and the tension caused by the congregation, I also feel a sense of tension that comes from my responsibility as a shepherd of the flock. This tension is similar to, but not the same as, the tension of relevance. I know that people come to church looking for a personal message from God, but I also know that the congregation has deeper needs than the ones they feel. They need to see how God meets them not only in their personal lives but also how his working in our lives connects to the larger work that God is doing. Ultimately, Christ will return and establish his kingdom. Right now, he is preparing for that coming kingdom by calling people into that kingdom by faith in the gospel. If our faith is only about us as individuals or our local church, we are not seeing or participating in the larger work that God is doing. We need to see that evangelism, missions, and even our growth in Christ is all connected to God’s larger work in the world.

So, there it is: the “three-way tug” of faithfulness, relevance, and shepherding. This tug can cause my preaching to be imbalanced in one or two directions if I’m not careful. When pastoral obligation wins, the message challenges the listener to look beyond his or her felt needs to the larger issues in the church’s life. At its best, this kind of preaching confronts people’s worldview, asking them to choose the path of selflessness over selfishness. At its worst, this type of preaching degenerates into condemnation. The church may feel berated for not living up to the my ideals and is urged to “do better.”

When felt needs win the tug of war, the audience pays close attention as the issues they care most about are surfaced and addressed. They may find answers to their problems or comfort for their griefs and struggles. When felt needs preaching is at its worst, however, the message of the Bible can be distorted and made to say something that the biblical author never intended. Furthermore, an over emphasis on felt needs can sometimes fail to challenge selfish attitudes that God wants to change.

Finally, if my preaching leans too far toward interpretation, people in my church may feel like students in a classroom, collecting many facts or truths about the Bible. At best, this emphasis in preaching creates a congregation with extensive Bible knowledge. At worst, the church might know a lot but obey very little. This type of preaching may also leave people in their comfort zones, never challenged to reach out to the world around.

Biblical Preaching, as defined by my teacher Haddon Robinson, attempts to take these three legitimate tensions and allow the message to be shaped appropriately by them all. Biblical Preaching is a process; it is a series of steps that, when followed in their proper order, usually yield a sermon that is faithful to the Bible, relevant to the audience, and challenging to the local body. This is what I’m trying to do as a canyon crosser in my preaching and teaching ministry.