Last night we had the first meeting of our new Communications Team at YWBC, a thoroughly constructive time spent trying to get to grips with a variety of issues in our church. The meeting has provoked action (the need to start blogging again!), but thinking as well. While discussing our church website, we hit upon the question which always arises in such discussions: Who are we communicating to? Those within or those outside our church? The issue is so complicated because I’ve been increasingly struck by how these different audiences seem to want to hear different messages.
Perhaps my point is best explained by an analogy from politics. Those of us keeping an eye on the US elections will be aware that opinion polls in key states suggest Mitt Romney’s plans post-November are increasingly likely to comprise an extended vacation. Those ‘47%’ comments are looking more costly by the day. But behind the debacle surrounding Romney’s ill-judged remarks at a fundraising dinner for rich donors there’s a bigger problem. To become acceptable in the eyes of many people in the Republican Party, increasingly a group obsessed over a handful of issues that polarise opinion (think small government, gun control, abortion), Romney ends up becoming unacceptable to the majority of US voters.
Could it be that we risk the same thing happening to us in the church? A few weeks ago I heard Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali promoting his new book Triple Jeopardy for the West. I came away unconvinced by his thesis, as robust a defence of Christendom as you’ll ever hear with a clear desire that the church should still be able to dictate terms to the rest of society. But drinking coffee with various members of the congregation afterwards made me aware I was in the minority. Lots of people were clearly pleased to have heard someone unafraid to ‘speak out for the truth.’
But the problem here is that truth is again seen as boiling down to a number of touchstone issues – just a few days ago, I had a conversation where someone complained to me that ‘we need to be speaking out’ on the redefinition of marriage debate. That sort of tub-thumping will certainly win preachers some kudos from some in their congregations even if it is breeding more and more of an unhealthy siege mentality among some Christians.
These conversations have reminded me of some words of Walter Brueggemann, in one of his most recent books on preaching, The Word Militant:
There is a long tradition of so-called prophetic preaching that is filled with anger, indignation, and condemnation, so that the preacher’s own juices of anger can run loose in the process.’
I suggest that we need to unlearn that common notion of prophetic preaching... it is clear that some of the most effective “prophetic preaching” in our time by such dazzling voices as Desmond Tutu… comes across as utterances of hope-filled, compassionate truth-telling largely free of rage. I suggest that we have misread the prophets to think them voices of simplistic rage, for hard truth can be told quietly if it intends to evoke a response rather than simply be an imposition of rage on the listener.
So what lessons do we learn here regarding communication? I offer two tentative conclusions.
- Our gospel is a large story of fall, redemption and recreation. It’s that big story we need to proclaim, over and above any ‘little stories,’ which often reflect our own vested interests. That doesn’t mean we never speak out on political or human rights issues, rather that we don’t define ourselves by the stances we adopt. Our posture must be one of love and not anger.
- Our message needs to be one of integrity – the things we say to the outside world are the same as the words spoken inside our walls.