Communicating well isn’t as easy as you may think

img_0001by: Rev. Ed Schneider, M.P.Th.

One of my favorite scriptural passages involves Paul learning the importance of adapting his message regarding his understanding of God’s message of love and empowerment found in Jesus to uniquely different audience.  Paul found himself in the City of Athens that was for centuries known as a “City of All God’s.” Athens prided itself as being a central location for all religions, a “one-stop religious shopping location” for the great religious thinking of their day. Below you will find the scriptural sequence providing a revealing context of the challenges of learning how to effectively communicate.

18 And also some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers were conversing with him. And some were saying, “What would this idle babbler wish to say?” Others, “He seems to be a proclaimer of strange deities,”—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. 19 And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is which you are proclaiming? 20 “For you are bringing some strange things to our ears; we want to know therefore what these things mean.” 21 (Now all the Athenians and the strangers visiting there used to spend their time in nothing other than telling or hearing something new.)

areopagus22 And Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects. 23 “For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.’ What therefore you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you.

24 “The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; 25 neither is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all life and breath and all things; 26 and He made from one, every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined {their} appointed times, and the boundaries of their habitation, 27 that they should seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; 28 for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we also are His offspring.’ 29 “Being then the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man.“ (Acts 17:18-29)

Isn’t it fascinating all the ways we human beings find to communicate with each other? What is well received by one group or person is often found to be a completely mystery to another.

In my early pre-teen and teenage life experiences I was associated with an urban environment that included heavy doses of African American local church interactions, jazz and gospel music, and rather aggressive physical playground basketball and its salty expressions. The combination of accepted language and projected “group understanding” of those collective language expressions were a significant part of how I initially learned to communicate with others. As I grew into my twenties I quickly found those useful and effective language assumptions were often no longer effective and in some rather embarrassing examples were completely misunderstood.

Again, what is completely reasonable and effective in one particular context is not always a positive expression or an effective strategy in another context. As I watch recent circumstances in American public life as we as a country move from one style of leadership communications to a dramatically different projection of language communications skills it profoundly reminds me of my own early challenges of transitioning between what was effective in one context and how confused I seemed to be when what no longer worked at all in a new context. I distinctly remember being severely chastised by an older and far more experienced musician one evening directly after a poorly received performance. He was in the audience the previous week when the exact musical expressions and in the exact same order were tremendously received to rousing applause and appreciation. When I got off the stage and took my seat in the back of performance venue I said to him, “What is wrong with these people?” His response to me was….YOU!

arroganceHis point was to point out my “arrogance and stupidity” in making the assumption that what worked one place was automatically suppose to work in another. It is not your audience’s responsibility to like and understand YOU it is rather YOUR JOB to do your homework about a potential audience and without reducing any of the quality of your efforts find an effective way of reaching that audience. If you don’t….or won’t….YOU HAVE FAILED YOUR PRIMARY OBILGATION OF EFFECTIVELY COMMUNICATING.

There is no doubt that one of the more common challenges all humanity faces is to develop effective communication strategies to both establish and enhance socially understood meaning. As part of my younger adult life I had the privileged to preach multiple times each and every week for several years. Over a eight year period I offered God’s Word and the meanings thereof to literally hundreds of Christian congregations. Not unlike many busy preachers I had to learn the “hard way” that what worked effectively in the pulpit on Sunday morning did not translate to effective teaching the mechanisms of sustainable discipleship teaching on Wednesday night of Saturday morning. I also had to learn what worked so well in a predominantly Black Baptist environment didn’t necessarily translate to a predominately White Baptist congregation. A teaching model of a sermon that worked so well in a suburban Presbyterian congregation fall flat on its face when I would walk into a preaching platform inside an enthusiastic Pentecostal “camp meeting” experience. Again, if I truly desired to be a highly effective preacher, teacher, and public agent of God’s message of the innate and eternal benefits of the life and mission of Jesus Christ I had to aggressively commit to understand the context of each audience I given the privilege to communicate the foundational messages of The Gospel.

The Apostle Paul is such a good example of this primary public communication philosophy that is becomes difficult to ignore his emphasis on committing to being adept at a variety of styles of presentation to connect to a potential audience. In 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 it says the following;

For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more. 20 And to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law, though not being myself under the Law, that I might win those who are under the Law; 21 to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, that I might win those who are without law. 22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, that I may by all means save some. 23 And I do all things for the sake of the gospel, that I may become a fellow partaker of it.

IMG_1802.JPGIn today’s highly charged political and social environment the lack of a commitment to find and adapt to the communication needs of others is ridiculously obvious. People from a variety of leadership points of view have been seen and heard in a blatantly stubborn and sophomoric reasoning that “it’s the audience’s fault” they don’t understand what is being printed or verbally proclaimed. It is so frustrating to myself and others who, by the very nature of what we do as preachers” know how incredibly essential it is to commit to knowing your audience and then establishing a common conduit of understanding. Without that overriding commitment to providing effective understanding from the audience’s point of view there is practically ZERO CHANCE of establishing a sustainable communication process.

It is shocking to me how so many leaders representing a variety of political, social or religious beliefs constantly make the error of disregarding a potential audience’s value.   When arrogance and passion, regardless of whether or not you agree with it or not, finds itself running full speed ahead without regard for the context….or sincere appreciation….of a desired audience at best it becomes frustratingly useless, and at worst, it is without question, insulting.

Another aspect of bad communications involves the fact the people are notorious at soaking up and then spewing out what they hear. Whether a speaker has a local, regional or platform the audience they have access to unfortunately have historically little intellectual filters to what a perceived leader says. As a pastor, preacher and teacher of God’s loving and empowering message I had to learn quickly can just as easily soak up life-giving and transformative language as they can deranged theology and inappropriate biblical sludge. It is an inconvenient truth that all authentic and sincerely committed leaders….inside the Christian church or inside public discourse….must take seriously.

cropped-20140605-173103-63063309.jpgHere’s a beginning guide to better strategies both in public communication and Christian discourse; make your foundational dialogue about finding common ground in the areas of character, goodness, faith, reason, and service to others. Are we going to agree on everything? Of course, not! However, sincerely attempting to establish a common conduit of understanding will provide a better opportunity for the collective good of the variety of audiences available to connect.

Given the current circumstances of societal environment will that be easy? God Almighty, NO! Public discourse has fallen to such a low point of assumption of hatred and disconnect that it seems almost unbelievable that we as a society can extricate ourselves from this communication quagmire. However, just like that old musician told be when I was a much younger man, “It’s your responsibility to know the audience in front of you and then actually work to learn how to communicate with them.”

Just something to think about….Peace.


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