Communication is a tricky business. We often are attempting to hit a moving target. Words seem to disappear into thin air, and we wonder if they have touched the listener’s heart. Hendrik Kraemer asks some tough questions of the Christian communicator: “Where and how do I live? In a ghetto or in living contact with the world? Does the world listen when I speak to it, and if not, why not? Am I really proclaiming the gospel, or am I not? Why has such a wall of separation risen between the world and what I must stand for? Do I know the world in which people live, or do I not . . . How can I find a way to speak again with relevancy and authority, transmitting ‘the words of eternal life’ entrusted to me?”
These are disturbing questions for the conscientious communicator. How can we begin to get a handle on the skill of Communicating Christ to an ever changing audience that is often typified by spiritual misconceptions and apathy toward the issues of the gospel?
Models Can Help
Models can help give us insight into what is going on in the world of communication as we share the gospel. A word of caution however: No model is perfect. No model takes into consideration all the possible variables and their relationship to the communication process. We must not confuse the model with the real situation. Let us look at two models that shed helpful light on interpersonal communication and make some applications to our task of communicating Christ.
The Shannon-Weaver Communication Model
The Shannon-Weaver model (see Figure 1) can be applied readily to all conversations and, in our case, is very helpful in understanding the dynamics of the evangelistic encounter. This model is especially helpful in two areas. First, it is concerned with message fidelity – the degree to which a message is received and interpreted as it was intended. Second, it addresses the role of “noise” or static that may interfere with the fidelity of the message.
THE SHANNON-WEAVER MODEL
This model was originally devised by the Bell Telephone Laboratories to help examine the accuracy (fidelity) of message transmission. See Claude E Shannon and Warren Weaver, The Mathematical Theory of Communication (Urbana, Illinois, University of Illinois Press, 1949). p. 9. Used by permission.
It is obvious that such a model can be helpful to the evangelist who desires to communicate the gospel accurately and clearly. He wants to avoid any barriers that might prevent the gospel from taking root in the heart of the listener.
The Basic Model of the Communication Process
This model (figure 2) is also quite helpful in providing a simple overview of the mechanics of the communications process.
BASIC COMMUNICATION MODEL
From David Hesselgrave’s Communicating Christ Cross Culturally (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Press, 1980), p.29. used by permission.
1. The Information Source
The information is, of course, the gospel and we, the Christian communication, are the source. There is a sense in which we are only a secondary source, God being the primary source/initiator of the entire process of communicating the gospel. Thus, we communicate only because He has first communicated through Christ. As He communicates, He continually seeks the lost through the convicting ministry of the Holy Spirit.
2. Encoding (Transmitting) The Signal
The source “encodes” the message, This means to put the message into some kind of coded system for the benefit of the respondent (listener). We will limit our discussion to the encoding of the message into words, written and spoken. The source must package and present the message in a manner that offers the best chance of reaching and influencing the listener. That is, the communicator puts the gospel into his or her own words, or presents someone else’s words (such as by using a tract or other gospel presentation), keeping in mind the listener’s ability to understand the message.
3. The Message
For us, this is the content of the gospel itself. It is the specific information concerning the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and His offer of love and forgiveness to sinners.
4. Noise Source
Probably all of us have had the experience of answering the telephone and not being able to hear our caller over the static. The issue here is one of “fidelity” or accurate message transmission. Static or “noise” is present in the mechanics of phone-to-phone communication, and it is even more common in the mechanics of interpersonal communication. It has been estimated that even in the best of situations, communication is only 80 percent effective. Part of the reason is noise.
Noise could be defined as “unwanted signals that can disrupt message fidelity”. In the arena of interpersonal communication, there are at least four sources of noise that hamper the transmission of the gospel from person to person.
(1) Cultural noise. This comes in the form of cultural misconceptions and negative input that directly distort the understanding of the gospel by the listener. As a result, he is not able to hear accurately what we are saying. For instance, the listener may be influenced by the secular view of man as independent from and not responsible to God. Thus, he perceives the gospel to be irrelevant and quite possibly nonsense. The nominalist might be influenced by cultural noise that says, “Jesus is nice but not necessary”. Thus, he could easily misinterpret the gospel as the cure for “whatever ails you” rather than as a message of forgiveness.
(2) Theological noise. Our message of Jesus Christ as the substitute for sin may be muffled by the theological static of “I’m O.K., you’re O.K., so who needs to throw himself on the mercy of Christ?” Or the misdirected religious person may perceive that what one believes does not really matter as long as he is sincere.
(3) Personal noise. This static comes in the form of personal experiences and attitudes that hinder the listener from appreciating the ramifications and benefits of the gospel to himself. For instance, he may have had a negative experience with some “Christians” or have been turned off to the gospel by past religious experiences. He may reason, “I know some Christians and I wouldn’t want to be one”, or “I’ve tried to be religious and it didn’t work”.
(4) Spiritual noise. The Bible is quite clear that Satan has blinded the minds of the unbelieving (2 Corinthians 4:4). The world system is designed to tell the nonbeliever a set of lies concerning his eternal destiny and Jesus Christ.
Only the Holy Spirit can counteract the debilitating effects of this noise. Only he can graciously enable the listener to operate on a frequency that overrides his spiritual blindness, freeing him to see the light of the gospel and its power for salvation.
The sure presence of noise is the very reason that the wise Christian communicator will do his homework so he can get in touch with his listener’s heart. Noise levels and patterns differ greatly from person to person, but the unchanging gospel must be clearly communicated so that all can hear and have an opportunity to believe.
Upon hearing the message, the listener must interpret or decode it (Figure 5) so that he mentally grasps the message in terms that are meaningful to him. Remember, listeners decode, or understand, messages only in the framework of the presuppositions and assumptions of their personal world. The source must encode and transmit the message with this in mind.
The meanings are not so much in the words as they are in the people. “We do not transmit meaning, we transmit words. Words stimulate the meaning the other person has for them.” As the Chinese proverb says, “90% of what we see lies behind our eyes.”
I became painfully aware of this truth as I attempted to share the gospel with a Mormon. He heartily agreed with my presentation. He said he had been “saved” by the “grace of Jesus”, was “born again” and was going to “heaven”. While our wording was the same, however, we were using a different dictionary. He agreed with me because he interpreted my words from his own framework, which provided the same words but with different meanings. I am afraid that the noise and perils of decoding got the best of our conversation.
The combination of noise and decoding can take its toll on the fidelity of the message. Therefore, the communicator must work to ensure that the message is received and understood with the highest degree of accuracy possible.
How does the communicator know if his message has broken through the noise, been decoded correctly and penetrated the heart? The answer is to cultivate an atmosphere that encourages feedback. As Figure 3 indicates, feedback is the process by which the listener becomes the source, encoding the information he has just received from you, then giving a message back to you that reflects he degree of his understanding. Feedback is vital in evangelistic communication for at least four reasons.
MONOLOGUE – one way flow of information – no feedback
DIALOGUE – two-way flow of information – feedback encouraged
This chart was adapted from a chart used in classroom lectures by Dr. Herb Klem, professor of missions at Bethel Theological Seminary, St Paul, Minnesota. Used by permission
(1) An emphasis on feedback ensures a dialogue, a two-way process of honest interaction, instead of a monologue, a one-way flow of information. The listener becomes part of the communication process and, as a result, his mind, heart and will are more likely to be engaged in reasoning through the personal implications of the gospel.
(2) Feedback can help you improve the accuracy of your message transmission. We must always ask ourselves, “Has the listener truly understood what I have said, or have noise and the hazards of decoding robbed my message of its fidelity?” Feedback lets you know if the listener has heard what you meant him to hear. You will be able to evaluate how much he has truly understood the gospel. As we have already learned, this matter is crucial if we are to persuade and not propagandize, if we are to call clearly for Spirit-led, life-changing decisions for Christ and not settle for shallow, spurious responses masquerading as saving faith.
(3) Feedback can help you keep the conversation personally relevant to the listener. It helps you determine his receptivity to the gospel message. Is the information causing the listener to ask the right kind of questions, the kind that are answered only in the cross of Christ? Is he ready for more information? Is he ready to decide for Christ? The communicator who is committed to effectiveness will place a high priority on encouraging and interpreting feedback.
(4) To rob the listener of the opportunity for feedback is tantamount to saying, “I don’t care what you think about this, just let me talk”. This attitude not only hinders the evangelist from accurately handling the word of truth, but also insults the listener’s personhood.
We must respond to the listener as an individual and relate the value of the gospel to his life situation, speaking to any barriers to his full understanding of the personal implications of the gospel, Feedback is essential in this process.
Lessons From the Model
The cycle is now complete. Source has become listener, and listener has become source. In a very real sense we become listener and source simultaneously As we deliver the message, we are tuned in to the listener’s feedback, evaluating whether our message has fallen on hard, rocky, thorny or good soil (Mark 4:1-20). Source, encoding, message, noise, decoding and feedback are the necessary components of true communication. A proper understanding of each is essential to evangelistic conversation in which the truth of the gospel is clearly and sensitively communicated so that an informed decision for Christ is possible.
A Decision-Making Model
Dr James Engel, director of the Billy Graham graduate programme in communications at the Wheaton College Graduate School, has given us a model of the spiritual decision-making process (see Figure 7).
This helpful model depicts the roles of God, the communicator and the listener in the process of communicating the gospel. Everyone we talk to falls somewhere on this scale in terms of his spiritual decision-making process and receptivity to the gospel.
This scale is helpful to us as communicators of the gospel in four ways. First, it shows us that apart from the convicting ministry of the Holy Spirit, no listener can understand or respond to the gospel. Only the Spirit can neutralize the spiritual noise caused by Satan’s blinding and binding efforts and free the listener to appreciate the grace and truth of the gospel.
Second, it shows that the Spirit of God and the communicator work in harmony to bring the listener to an understanding of the gospel and to the point of personal decision. As Hendrick Kraemer points out, “The communication of the gospel, which is necessarily incumbent upon the church and its members, is neither primarily nor ultimately dependent on our human ability to communicate.” Kraemer maintains that we are called to a constant sharpening of our skills, “the primary author of the effective transmission of the message is the Holy Spirit,” the invisible third partner in the communication process. Without His witness, ours is futile. But with His witness, ours can be a tool in His powerful hand to effect spiritual results in the life of the listener.
This model as presented here has undergone an interesting history. In rudimentary forms, it was first suggested by Viggo Sogaard while he was a student in the Wheaton Graduate School. It later was revised by James F Engel and published in such sources as Church Growth Bulletin and elsewhere during 1973. Since that time, modifications have been introduced as others have made suggestions. Particularly helpful comments have been advanced by Richard Senzig of the communications faculty at the Wheaton Graduate School and Professors C Peter Wagner and Charles Kraft of the Fuller School of World Mission. (From What’s Gone Wrong With The Harvest, Grand Rapids: Zondervan Press, 1975, p. 45. Used by permission.)
Third, this chart shows us that different people have different levels of spiritual understanding and interest in the gospel. While some are ready to respond today, some are not. While many are ready to take the next step toward accepting Christ, some are stalled in their decision-making process or are headed away from Christ.
Finally, this chart gives us insight into the sequence of decision steps leading to the actual event of conversion/regeneration. The listener must have an awareness of the fundamental’s of the gospel before he can grasp its personal implications, and he must grasp those implications before he can recognize his problem.
The Application to Personal Evangelism
This model lends strong support to the proposition that “success in witnessing is simply sharing Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit and leaving the results to God”. The New Testament is full of examples of the gospel being presented and received with a wide range of responses. When Paul preached the gospel in Athens, the crowd divided into three camps (Acts 17:16-34). Some sneered at the thought of the resurrection of the dead and rejected his message. Some joined him and believed. Others said “We shall hear you again concerning this”. They were not yet ready to believe, but their curiosity had been sufficiently stimulated for them to return for more information.
Since not everyone is at the same level of spiritual preparedness, we need to ascertain as best we can at what point the listener is on the scale, then help him move as far toward trusting Christ as is appropriate. This model underscores the importance of encouraging feedback to determine the spiritual preparedness of the listener, enabling us to respond with the appropriate information.
To be sure, many are ready to receive Christ, and it would be a tragedy to deny them the opportunity. Some are struggling to gain a grasp of the personal implications of the gospel. They need to receive information and encouragement from us to take that step in the decision-making process and move closer toward receiving Christ.
I always pray two things in light of this model: first, that God would lead me to people who are ready to decide, so that I might help them enter His kingdom; second, that God would grant me the wisdom to determine where my listeners are in the decision-making process, so that I might speak to their point of need with relevance and with gospel’s authority. Regardless of one’s position on this scale, I can have an eternal impact on his life and fulfill my role as an ambassador for Christ.
Tools and the Communication Process
Perhaps you are wondering how tools like the Four Spiritual Laws, Billy Graham’s Steps to Peace With God and James Kennedy’s Evangelism Explosion fit into these communication models. As I have mentioned in a previous chapter, some believe that the use of tools is inherently inflexible and insensitive. But I believe that tools are as flexible as the people using them. Rigidity is imposed not by the tool but by the attitude of the communicator.
Three Communication Models
I would like to suggest three different attitudes toward the communication process (see Figure 8) and discuss how they relate to the use of tools in communicating the gospel.
The Source-Centered Attitude
Communications is a learned art. It is easier for some of us than for others. Some of us are naturally outgoing and can tune in to other’s feelings more easily. Some of us are withdrawn and fearful of making contact with others, even on a superficial level. But regardless of our personality type and gifts (or lack of them) in the area of communication, most of start out on the bottom rung of the ladder as “source-centered” communicators.
A source-centered communicator is one whose attention is focussed on himself. Most of us find it difficult, if not impossible, just to be ourselves and act naturally when another person is present and we sense that he may be evaluating us. What happened the last time you were told, “Just act natural, I want to take your picture”? Did your attention automatically turn inward as you asked yourself, How is my hair? Is my best side showing? Did you become self-conscious to the point of discomfort?
We find ourselves dealing with the same tendencies in our first attempts to witness to others about Christ. The fear of being rejected, the lack of experience, and the discomfort that comes from doing something new all force us to turn our attention inward and ask, What does this person think of me? Does he think I’m strange, talking about Jesus like this? Lord, help me get through this conversation. I hope my mouthwash is still working.
The result of this inward focus is communication with limited effectiveness. With all our energy and attention focussed on these questions, there is little left for dealing with the concerns of message fidelity and feedback.
To the Rescue
Don’t despair: there is help. While most of us must put in our time as a self-centered communicator, we need not languish in this mode. Here are three ways we can break out of this communication style.
First, realize that although this self-centered style comes naturally to all of us, we need not remain in its grip. Purpose in your heart to do anything necessary to escape its negative influence on your communication.
Second, realize that training in the use of a good evangelistic tool, as well as experience in using it, are the means to escape the source-centered attitude. I am convinced that many Christians are so overwhelmed by fear and the inertia of inexperience that they avoid witnessing situations like the plague . Who wants to go through the discomfort of the source-centered communication experience? This is where a tool like the Four Spiritual laws can help in a couple of ways. It gives you the assurance that once you are in an evangelistic conversation, you will actually have something of spiritual significance to say. Regardless of your prior training, personally and level of communication skills, you can intelligently communicate the gospel by using such a tool. It is a great way to get started and will provide the assistance you need to communicate confidently.
This is why I recommend that everyone, no matter how spiritually mature, no matter what personality type, participate in a training programme that equips him to break through the fear and experience barriers and actually get involved in doing evangelism. Such training can help you know how to introduce the gospel, communicate it and close an evangelistic conversation. Even more important, training can help you shorten the amount of time you have to struggle with the deficiencies of the self-centered attitude, for the fear and inadequacies of this phase are overcome only as experience is accumulated.
I have seen these principles work in my own life. As I first learned that sharing the gospel was for everyone, I decided to try out with the help of a friend. At first I just watched him and prayed, but the time soon came for me to go solo. I was scared to death and felt so self conscious that I am sure I did nothing more than read through the Four Spiritual Laws booklet as fast as I could. If any of the pages had been stuck together, I would not have noticed. After I finished and the trainer evaluated my time, my first question was, “Is it always this hard and unpleasant? I thought sharing the gospel was a great joy”. He replied that as I gained more experience and training, I would feel more natural. He was right.
What About Effectiveness?
You might be asking, “ if the source-centered communication style is such a negative experience, will the gospel get through?” I have to answer this question with a qualified ‘yes’. I have seen people come to Christ in spite of the most awkward of communication attempts. The reason is that God is committed to validating the authority and relevance of the gospel message to the listener’s heart regardless of our clumsy attempts to share Christ. God is more concerned with our availability than our ability. So if you are struggling with the pitfalls of source-centered communication, do not despair, God will still use you.
On the other hand, it would be a mistake to presume upon the grace of God to make up for our lethargy and lack of commitment to improve our communication skills. God will use you, but He desires to use you as a sharpened tool in His hands. There is no place for mediocrity here. If there is one area in which to pursue excellence, it is in the communication of the gospel.
Thus, if you are in the source –centered stage, possibly just learning how to overcome your fears and get out there to do evangelism, congratulations. But there is much more ground to cover in the name of being the best ambassador possible for Jesus Christ.
The Message-Oriented Attitude
Congratulations! You have graduated from the deficiencies of the source-centered phase. Your heart no longer beats wildly, your self-consciousness no longer consumes your attention. You are free to concentrate on a higher concern — the message of the gospel.
The message-oriented communicator asks himself, “Am I doing justice to the content and intent of the message?” “How am I doing in terms of fidelity?” But as Figure 7 shows, this phase stills falls short of true other-centered communication. The communicator’s energies are focussed on the message, not on the listener.
What is the best way to free yourself to invest your emotional energies in the listener? The answer is to master the message to such a degree that it becomes second nature to you. Only then can your communication energies be focussed on the listener. This is why concentrating on a particular format for sharing the gospel is so important, for the sooner I master the message, the sooner I can move into the most efficient realm of communication, the other-centered style.
The goal of all tools and training should be to move the Christian communicator through the source and message stages and into the other-centered style.
At this point I want discuss two divergent approaches to evangelistic training, both of which can be barriers to progressing toward other-centered communication.
The “I’ve arrived” attitude keeps many trained Christians from the joys and challenges of the other-centered phase. It is also ensuring that the message is understood. The goal of evangelism is to give the listener an opportunity to make an informed decision for Christ. But such a decision may be hampered by noise (cultural, theological or personal), which makes an informed decision sometimes difficult. The Christian who has stagnated in the message-centered style is ill prepared to deal with these concerns.
“I’m a Natural”
On the other extreme is the instant-expert syndrome. The Christian reasons that he can bypass the deficiencies and pitfalls of the self- and message-centered styles and become an other-centered communicator because it is easy for him to “just be natural”. Therefore, he need not bother with tools and training.
A positive side to this thinking is that the communicator really wants to be other-centered. He is usually conscious of the need for genuine communication.
But the shortcomings are serious. First, while some very gifted people may indeed be “natural” other-centered communicators, most of us must admit that we are not so inclined. As a result, we must deal with the fears and inadequacies inherent in the self-centered styles. Telling someone to “just be natural” does not help him overcome these barriers.
Second, this person usually views tools and training as stifling and inflexible factors. After all, how can I be trained in how to be myself? I do not need a tool for “sharing from my heart” what Jesus has done for me. With tools and training out of the picture, the Christian is then left to himself to navigate the tricky waters of other-centered communication. The result is that often no true evangelism takes place, or the evangelistic encounter is not typified by a clear presentation of the gospel.
The Joy and Challenge of Other-Centered Communication
The other-centered communication style does not happen by accident. It is the result of hard work, experience and training. In a real sense it is a privilege, reserved for those who have mastered their message and overcome the fears and inertia that would otherwise rob them of life-giving conversations about Christ with their friends, neighbours and anyone else who will listen.
This copyright chapter is taken from Tell It Often, Tell It Well (M. McCloskey & B Bright), Here’s Life Publishers 1985.
It is reproduced by permission and can be printed out for non-profit study purposes, but it should not be sold. | |