4 tips for communicating faith in a modern world
“We desperately want to declare Jesus Christ to all Australians, but unless we address the ‘bunker mentality’, we will be communicating to no one.”
ABC’s popular programme Gruen dissects the consumerist culture we live in. Michael Jensen thinks it also provides some tips for how to communicate the good news of Jesus with our world.
1. We are creatures that dream, so address human beings as creatures made to dream; ask what they long for. Tell them about the great dream.
The advertising industry recognises that, even though we like to think of ourselves as primarily rational creatures who make our choices through careful deductive analysis of all the possibilities, we are nothing of the kind. We are creatures of the heart, not the head. We are dreamers, who are set in motion by a vision of what we yearn for.
We are creatures whose habit is to long for some better world beyond but not unlike this one.
We are creatures whose habit is to long for some better world beyond but not unlike this one. We are internally constituted to long for the kingdom to come. What advertisers can see is that we are easily convinced to substitute this-worldly kingdoms for the kingdom of heaven.
What we have lost the ability to do, perhaps, from our side, is to speak in an appealing and persuasive way about the kingdom of heaven. Meditation on heaven was a staple of both Puritan and medieval spirituality. It seems to me that this is why the work of CS Lewis still has so much appeal: he understood what it means to long for a better home, and was able, because of this to suggest ways in which we might critique our culture’s glib satisfaction with what turn out to be fleeting pleasures that very often cause us damage.
2. We can’t resist a story, so tell the strange old story, and show how it’s a better story.
We think of ourselves in narrative terms: as characters, inhabiting plots. Narratives have their own logic, because they draw us into a created world of cause and effect, in which things make sense because they relate to the playing out of characters over time. Stories are entrancing and addictive, and you don’t have to do much to tell a story or imply one.
…the church does not have to invent new stories; it already has a story to tell.
The power of stories for communicating is not just a TED-talk tip. It is a primary and basic truth about the way human beings are trained to think about themselves and the world. I think we can give a theological account of why human beings are created this way. It has to do with the character of God, who reveals himself to human beings in time and over time. He is the promising God, who reveals what he is like and what he will do through his words and actions – as a character in a plot, in other words. He is no abstract principle, but the one who invites human creatures into union with him, not as a mystical principle, but as the experience of being part of his story. To do mission well, then, the church does not have to invent new stories; it already has a story to tell.
The gospel story is not a philosophy or a piece of wisdom. It’s a narrative that, if we believe it, sweeps us up. But it is a strange story. We should not forget its strangeness, for that is its great advantage. It isn’t a story about how we are better than the rest. If it is the church’s story, it is only that as a judgement on the church for its failure to be what it is called to be. It remains, always, the story of the risen and crucified Jesus Christ, who has been declared with power to be the Son of God. In this story, weakness is strength, and gentleness is power. In this tale, the hero dies for his enemies to make them his friends. It’s the story of how justice is affirmed, but also of how sinners are shown mercy. It is embarrassingly miraculous, but sweatily realistic.
3. We are afraid, so model what it’s like to be less afraid. Know people’s fears.
Our fears are multiple: we fear disease, we fear the loss of loved ones, we fear financial ruin, we fear being seen as uncool or overweight or out of touch, we fear missing out. And into this space, advertisers rush.
Preachers of the gospel don’t need to make people fearful: they already are.
Preachers of the gospel don’t need to make people fearful: they already are. For finite creatures living in the realm of Adam, fear is a reality. What preachers need to do is to be successful at unmasking our attempts to find security in things that are not in themselves secure. The gospel of Jesus Christ is offered as response to fears which does not need to magnify them nor does it deny them, but acknowledges them as real. 1 John 4:18 says the antidote to fear is not insurance, or an anti-bacterial soap, but ‘perfect love’.
Knowing what people fear, and that people fear, is a window into their souls. Pastoral work should teach us a good deal about this. I think from personal experience I can see that people fear loss of identity almost more than they fear loss of life; they fear grief more than suffering; and the randomness of events that can determine the course of our lives is truly terrifying.
This is where we need not only to believe but to practise the sovereignty of God – which means being people who are not afraid. The sovereignty of God is not simply an abstract and distant and remote quality. It is learnt through the strange story of Jesus Christ, and enacted by us as we respond to him in prayer.
4. Authenticity matters, so shape communities of authenticity.
In a fascinating discussion about the Jesus – All About Life campaign, the panel on ABC TV’s Gruen noted that the campaign focused on Jesus rather than on church, because of research that had highlighted that while church is not popular in Australia, Jesus still is. But this means that there’s a disconnect between brand Jesus and his outlets. As Todd Sampson said, ‘most people would say the retail shops are letting the brand down.’
…it’s no good whinging about media distortion. Would a company with a product to sell get away with that?
The sense of entitlement and moral superiority with which people hear us is not matched on the ground by communities of genuine care. At least, that’s the perception. And it’s no good whinging about media distortion. Would a company with a product to sell get away with that? We should not underestimate the impact of the child abuse scandals, either. Would you entrust your children to the care of an organisation which was notorious for taking a forgiving attitude to the child abusers in its midst?
Our outlets are, in marketing terms, letting the brand down. If we are meant to be representing the Lord who died for sin, if we hold the atoning blood of Jesus Christ as not just important but central, then: why is it not evident in our communities? Why is this not a reality that permeates our life? The message here is: we don’t need to be hipper, cooler, funkier, or younger. We need to be more authentically what we really are. Is the truth we proclaim embodied – including the truth that we are not perfect, but forgiven?
The message here is: we don’t need to be hipper, cooler, funkier, or younger. We need to be more authentically what we really are.
To implement the strategies I have named will take some serious creative, intellectual and organisational firepower, and it will take some courageous leadership. The good news is that the resources are already to hand in the Scriptures, and in our heritage.
This is an excerpt from a speech delivered by Michael Jensen at the AGM of the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans on August 31, 2016. It is republished here with permission. Find the full speech here.