Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible … I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. (1 Cor 9:19, 22)
Did Paul ever write any words more challenging and difficult than these?
Now, as then, the demand to adapt our behaviour in order to win converts is often misunderstood or misapplied. Some, in attempting to rid the gospel of all its cultural baggage, succeed in also ridding it of its real content. They end up with a very ‘hip’ package devoid of the basic elements of the gospel. Others who are concerned to be faithful to the unchanging gospel pay only lip-service to Paul’s example of cultural sensitivity. They finish up with a true gospel that is obscured by its cultural trappings to the point of being unintelligible.
These are concerns that missionaries well understand. And we tend to consign discussion of these issues to the missionary basket. We see it as a cross-cultural issue to be faced when making the cultural jump from, say, Australia to South America.
It is becoming increasingly obvious, however, that we face these ‘cross-cultural’ issues here in Australia. Australia is now a cross-cultural mission field, and this is not only because of the burgeoning immigrant population. Mainstream Australia and mainstream Christianity are becoming culturally differentiated. We are speaking a different language. Christian churches are failing on a wide front to communicate with the ‘ordinary Australian’.
This is a recognized phenomenon and some attempts are being made to do something about it. The efforts so far have mostly involved ‘de-jargonizing’ Christian language. Some have tried to remove in-words and outmoded expressions, and phrase things in a more vernacular, easy-to-grasp manner.
This is an important task, but still a fairly superficial solution. It is a bandaid on a far deeper malady, one that simply updating our vocabulary will not cure.
A change in the way we think
For some of us, words and grammar are a means of expressing rational thought. If there is something we want to say, we try to arrange the material in a logical way, and then present it compellingly and lucidly. We use the agreed conventions of language to transfer a thought from our mind to the minds of our hearers or readers.
However, for growing numbers of Australians, this is no longer the function of language. Language is becoming little more than a series of emotional cues. This is seen par excellence in advertising, where words and images combine to persuade the viewer to buy the product. It is a question of impressions and feelings, not reason. As television becomes a new demagogue, rational thought and discussion become increasingly irrelevant.
This shift to the instant and the visual started long before television. It began last century with the telegraph and the photo (see Neil Postman’s book Amusing Ourselves to Death, mentioned in our last issue, for a detailed discussion of how this change has taken place.)
This change is affecting not only the way we talk to each other, but, obviously, the way we think. Australians are becoming less able to think rationally or to consider a series of arguments or propositions and evaluate them. Our collective attention span is diminishing. As a society, we are increasingly thinking and making decisions on the basis of impressions and images. The politico-media circus at election time is a painful example.
It is interesting to consider the connection between this debasement of language and the influence of psychologist BF Skinner. Skinner, you might recall, was the ‘black box’ man who theorized that man was simply the product of his environment. Given the right stimuli and positive reinforcement, said Skinner, men (and animals) could be trained or habituated to any behaviour. Exit: truth. Enter: positive reinforcement.
It has not taken long for a number of disciplines to discover that affirmation and positive feedback yield impressive results. A school of management and educational theory has been born that stresses the need for frequent, even random, affirmation. Language becomes a means of manipulation, not a medium of communication.
Some examples. The McDonald’s empire is built on a lexicon of positive, affirming McSpeak. From management training techniques through to customer relations, “have-a-nice-day-and-enjoy-your-meal” permeates the company. And it has yielded impressive results: even the very name ‘McDonald’s’ was chosen not for any logical reason (the founder’s name was Kroc), but because of its connotations: solid, family, Scottish/thrifty and so on.
As has already been noted, politics is a case in point. Political pollsters do their research and then cue their masters to say the right words—words that will strike a chord with the swinging voter. Elections are now decided by the image-makers. The ALP is confident that it can win any election while John Howard is still leading the Coalition—supposedly because Howard does not have a good media image. His qualifications (or otherwise) as a potential national leader are by the by. And, no doubt, the next election will be decided on the basis of who does the best market research in the marginal seats.
In society generally, positive and affirming language is in; straight talk and criticism is out. The Americans no longer speak of a ‘loss’; they now have ‘negative cash flow enhancement’.
Of course, all this niceness is affected by the law of diminishing returns. When the hundredth shop assistant says, “We care about you” or “Have a nice day”, the effect begins to wear off. It is just another slogan, as bland and colourless as the shop window manikins.
A change in the way we relate
These subtle but steady changes in the way we use language are not only affecting how we think and talk, but how we relate to each other. It is still possible to express something negative to another person, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to be straightforward about it.
In fact, straightforwardness, in expressing both positive and negative sentiments, is the real casualty of this shift. Our children are growing up in a world where direct criticism or negative statements are anathema. Preservation of peoples’ self-esteem demands that we eliminate negative comments from our conversation. Indeed, the assumption is becoming rooted in our social consciousness that criticism is inherently bad for self-esteem. How does this square with the Bible’s concepts of speaking the truth in love and finding our self-worth in Christ?
There are some cultures where directness has never been a feature. One south-east Asian society takes ‘yes’ to mean “Yes, I understand you”, not “Yes, I agree or will do what you say”. If you invite someone from this country to dinner, they will invariably say “Yes”. To say “No” would be unthinkably rude and involve your losing face. By “Yes”, they mean “Yes, I understand, and thank you for being so polite as to ask me”. They know that if you really want them to come to dinner, you will ask them several times, send a written invitation, and follow it up with a phone call the day before.
This way of relating is not wrong, but it is complicated, and missionaries have to adjust to it. There is the story of a missionary in Asia who made his normal western-style appeal at the end of the service and was overjoyed to see everyone present respond—a 100% conversion rate! Of course, the people came forward only out of politeness so as not to embarrass their overseas guest. None of them were converted.
It is lamentable that straight talk is passing out of our social interaction. It will result in relationships that are more complicated and probably more deceitful. Truth will be replaced by the new positive double-speak. The population will be manipulated (electorally and commercially), rather than being treated as rational, responsible humans. Superficiality and emotional response will be our intellectual currency.
It is to be lamented, too, that this will inevitably affect Christian fellowship. The biblical ideal of “speaking the truth in love” is becoming culturally distasteful. Already the biblical concepts of admonition and rebuke grate against our liberated sensibilities. Will we be able to resist this trend?
In our fellowship, perhaps we might. Through the teaching and encouragement of Scripture, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, Christians may succeed in maintaining a godly tradition of candour mixed with sensitivity. It is just possible. Maybe.
But when it comes to evangelism, can we afford to be different?
Evangelism in an image-based world
The principle we touched on at the beginning of this article—the necessity of adapting our behaviour for the sake of others’ salvation—means that we cannot acquiesce and watch our communication become unintelligible to our contemporaries. We have a message that they need to hear. We need to adapt.
The question is as Christians, can we speak double-speak? Will we be heard if we don’t? Is this an area of liberty or an issue of gospel lifestyle?
One thing is certain: early Sunday morning is the only time bald, middle-aged men can be seen on TV. Every other talking head is well-groomed, image-conscious, smiling, relaxed and speaking banalities. Of our two male, middle-aged Sydney newsreaders, one has had a hair transplant, the other a facelift. Christians have some real content to communicate, but how can they do it in this artificial, superficial medium?
Some Christian programmes are more in tune with the established techniques of television. They are light (or else dramatic), and make use of music, images and personalities. Robert Schuller’s The Hour of Power is an example.
But is this Christian television? Can the gospel be expressed this way? Can we exhort people to mourn their sinfulness and turn back to God in humble repentance through a variety show? Does the testimony of ‘successful’ people (business or sporting or musical heroes) have any value in communicating our sin and the love of Christ? Or is it just another celebrity product endorsement?
In our generation, decisions are made on personality, mood and impression. This is how we elect our politicians, select our groceries, decide on which car to buy and, indeed, deal with each other from day to day. In a world where the cartoon is a more effective medium than the lecture, how can we share the gospel?
Recognizing the problem
In order to reach our own cross-cultural mission field with the gospel, there is much hard thinking to be done. It is clear that we cannot keep speaking the language of yesteryear and hope to communicate with our contemporaries. The present trend will continue: Christian churches will be marginalized and come to occupy an irrelevant place on the fringe of society.
At the same time, we cannot follow all the whims of the new double-speak. We are bound to commend the truth openly and honestly. We are not to use underhanded or deceitful methods, says Paul in 2 Corinthians 4. It is a time for risk-taking and for careful adherence to theological truth. Like any cross-cultural missionaries, we must thoroughly understand the gospel before we start to adapt the package in which we present it.
We cannot stay where we are. We must press forward, no matter how painful that might be. The first step is to recognize the nature and extent of the problem, and pray to Almighty God for wisdom in tackling it.