Every time we refer to the Bible, whether preaching before a congregation of familiar faces or citing a passage from memory in a conversation with an unchurched friend, we have one goal: to gain a hearing. What we’re trying to do, ultimately, is speak God’s Word in such a way that a person is compelled to weigh it and respond to it. We can’t make people believe God’s Word, or live by it, but we can encourage them to listen to it, take it seriously, and weigh its claims and promises.
So how do we communicate a high-voltage message in a way that ensures contact? How do we let the electricity of God’s spoken Word flow through us with power?
Look how God did it. First, He knew the world. He understood it. He knew it inside and out: its triumphs and its tragedies, its needs and its longings, the hollow in its heart. But He didn’t remain aloof from the world. He entered it. He rolled up his sleeves and waded in. He touched the world, and the world touched him. Then He brought truth and heavenly wisdom from outside the world to bear on human hearts. He said what the world needed to hear, not what it wanted to hear.
Using this incarnational approach as my model, I’ve come up with a simple strategy for biblical communication that I call the relevare model of communication, from the Latin word meaning “to bear upon.” I believe the method has the potential to transform our effectiveness as biblical communicators.
1. Understand Your World
In The Open Boat, Stephen Crane tells the story of four men stranded in a tiny, unsteady lifeboat in the open sea. The opening lines capture the intensity with which the men watched the waves that rolled toward them: “None of them knew the colour of the sky. Their eyes glanced level, and were fastened upon the waves that swept toward them. These waves were of the hue of slate, save for the tops, which were of foaming white, and all of the men knew the colours of the sea.”1
Nothing else mattered to them. They had become students of the sea, scrutinizing every new swell because each rising wave threatened to swamp their tiny boat.
The world around us throbs and churns like the open sea. It is always changing, blown and tossed by the winds of every new cultural bent, every new way of thinking or making sense of life.
As pastors and laypeople who want to communicate God’s Word with effectiveness and power, we need to be students of our world. We need to “know the colours of the sea.” What are the new swells beginning to loom, the new waves of thought?
Consider some of the changes that have swept our shores in recent years: the rise of the men’s movement, the growth of computer online services, the press toward multiculturalism, the attraction of Eastern spirituality, the arrival of home entertainment centers. Each, when understood, provides a window to the world at our doorstep. All point to the slide away from a commitment to truth with a capital T; the further retreat into the distracted aloneness of one’s own home, the relentless and sometimes panicky search for identity and fulfillment, and so much more.
Only when we understand what makes the world tick, what gives shape to its impulses and convictions, can we speak with any relevance.
To understand our surrounding world means we can at least begin to answer questions like these.
– What drives the world around you?
– What makes it different from other places and times?
– How do people spend their time and money?
– What is most on the heart of people who share the freeway and the supermarket with you?
– What are people thinking about, dreaming about, longing for?
– How do people make sense of life?
– What worldviews are you most likely to encounter among your acquaintances?
– Who or what has the ear of the people around you?
– How does sin most often express itself?
Here are some ways to become a student of the world around you.
– Read everything you can get your hands on. Look for clues to what’s going on in the hearts of people in your world. The newspaper, news magazines, comics, best-sellers, airline magazines, even the headlines on the glamour magazines at the grocery store can yield treasures.
One day I was standing in line at the grocery store, gallon of milk in hand, when I saw this headline on the cover of a Cosmopolitan magazine: “The Kinkiest, Wildest Turn-On of All Time Is (Would You Believe It?) Mutual Trust.” What an astounding admission from those who would have us believe that looks and technique are all that matter!
Nearly every page in print, from the comic page to The Wall Street Journal, can point to important waves rising on the horizon of our culture. I’m forever tearing articles out of papers or magazines and photocopying copies of articles and chapters for my files; the joke during one stay with my wife’s parents was that all I left of the paper were a few shreds.
– Watch TV and go to the movies. The screen, whether it be in the privacy of our homes or at the local 24 screen theater, has more influence on our generation than any other voice. Know what it is saying.
– Be a quiet observer of what makes your friends and neighbors’ lives tick. Leith Anderson likes to take advantage of the times he is invited into the homes of others as an opportunity to learn about their world. What could you learn by walking through people’s homes like a detective? I’m not talking about excusing yourself from the dinner table, sneaking upstairs, and rummaging around in your host’s medicine cabinet. There’s a lot to be learned simply by keeping your eyes open. Which room is the center of the home? How is it arranged? What does that say? What books are on the shelves, if any? What magazines are stacked for browsing in the bathroom? What videotapes are there? What new purchases fill the garage and den?
– Make the most of every conversation. I don’t know about you, but there’s nothing I dislike more than some parties. Parties can be gold mines, though. Just ask a lot of questions: Where do you work? Do you like what you do? What drew you into the field? How would you separate the winners from the losers in your profession? What do you like to do when you have some free time? Had a vacation lately? Where’d you go? How’d you pick that? Who do you like to spend time with? Who are your heroes? Why?
Put your fingertips on the pulse of the world. Know the colors of the sea around you.
2. Enter Your World
The movie The Mission begins with one of the most powerful scenes in recent movie making. Tribal people in the jungles of Brazil have just killed a Jesuit missionary who came to them. Imitating the curious figure that hung on a chain around his neck, they tie his body to a cross and shove it over a huge waterfall. Moments later his body washes up against the banks of the river where his fellow missionaries wait downstream. But they are not deterred by this grisly welcome. After burying the body of his good friend and fellow priest, another member of the order immediately sets out to reach the natives. The only way to get to them, however, is to climb straight up the enormous rock face over which his friend has just been thrown. With the mist from the waterfall blasting against his face and threatening his grip, this priest nearly doesn’t make it. But he presses on and, after hours of climbing, eventually manages to reach the top. Once there, he sits down on a rock, and — knowing that these people love music — takes a recorder out of his pocket and begins to play. At great cost and risk to himself, this man steps out of his world and into theirs.
We must walk our hearers from where they are to where God’s Word calls them to be. But lots of barriers make it hard for us even to get within hearing distance of non-Christians, let alone be heard and understood. Today Westerners are slow to hear and quick to lock their doors and crank up their stereos when Christians arrive.
Most people simply don’t buy the idea that Christians have the answers. They see too much evidence to the contrary. We Christians have been caught, in more ways than one, with our zippers down. Our sin, our selfishness, our spiritual smugness, the inconsistency of our beliefs and our lives speak much louder than our words. When the watching world sees pedestals being put under Christians, it begins to look for bowling balls … or earplugs.
Add to that the fact that people are subjected to a ridiculous barrage of words on a daily basis. It sends them withdrawing turtle-like into the locked-door privacy of their three-bedroom, two-bath fortresses. Little wonder we have trouble getting even a sound bite past the defenses of non-Christians.
The days of effective street-corner and door-to-door evangelism in the United States are waning. People have had enough of words addressed to “Occupant.” They are weary of being bombarded by messages “to whom it may concern.” Who needs one more assault on the senses and sensibilities?
It is not enough for us to understand our world from afar. We need to wade into it and rub shoulders with those we desire to reach. We need to be willing to get our cuffs smudged by the world, living life with non-Christians on their terms, not ours. When we enter the world of the men and women around us who don’t know Christ, we lay the groundwork for real communication to take place.
When I live that close to my neighbors and office mates, I know them. I know which TV shows they plan their schedules around, which radio stations they tune their car radios to, which movies they’ve seen seven times. I know what they spent half of their last paycheck on.
I know their hearts. I begin to understand the pressures that would lead a teen to have sex or an unfulfilled woman to divorce her husband or a man in a dead-end career to drink heavily. I know what they are looking for when they hang out at a bar during happy hour every day and what they are avoiding when they watch four hours of television a night.
And when I know their hearts, I can begin to speak their language. I’m aware of where my interests and experiences overlap with theirs, and that helps me speak biblical truth with grace and understanding. I know what words to use, what stories to tell, what images to evoke, what life experiences to draw on in ways that will make sense to them.
At the same time, when we live that close to others, they start seeing us as real persons with real struggles, but with a faith big enough to provide real answers in the midst of real challenges.
They hear what we say when a hammer hits our fingers, see how we relate to our kids when we’re running on four hours of sleep, look into the bags we bring home from the mall, notice which channel our cable is left on from the night before. We need to live in such a way that, if Jesus really does make a difference in our lives, people around us cannot help but see it.
When we let others in on our lives, we earn the right to be heard.
Wasn’t this Jesus’ way? He knew humanity. He knew what made people tick. And he entered their world. That’s what the incarnation was all about: Jesus jumping in. He didn’t keep His office in the Holy of Holies, away from the masses. He walked the earth, not the hallways of heaven. He lived in the alleys and homes of the common people. His feet got splattered with the same muck as everyone else. He hung out, so to speak, at the beer halls and bowling alleys and betting tracks of his day. Jesus spent so much time with “un-churched” people that he was accused of wining and dining too much with the wrong crowd (Matt. 11:19).
“As the Father has sent me,” Jesus says to us, “so I am sending you” (John 20:21). Into the world.
3. Bring Truth to Bear from Outside Your World
Consider this.
– Jesus always began where people were, but He never allowed them to stay there.
– Jesus always listened to people’s questions, but He rarely answered what they asked.
– Jesus spoke the truth people needed to hear, not what they wanted to hear.
Whenever He spoke with men and women, Jesus was not content merely to echo back to them their own insight, their own limited perspective. To do so would have been like giving salt water to a man dying of thirst. Jesus always brought truth to bear from outside a person’s world and applied it to his or her life.
We are called to do the same. Across the pages of the Bible God unfolds His perspective, shows His priorities, explains His purposes. There He tells us what is real, what is important, what is true. God tells us about Himself, about us, and about the relationship He desires to have with us. So it is there we must turn.
But that means conflict, because God’s ways are not our ways. At least, not anymore: Not since a little conversation in a garden some years back when a man and a woman decided that they would like to apply for the position of lord of the universe. Ever since then, humanity has been at odds with God. So every time we bring people in contact with biblical truth, there is — or should be — conflict. How we think and act, the things we pursue and care about, all need to be brought back in keeping with what God has for us.
One summer during college I worked at a diesel engine dealership. Part of my job was to deliver diesel engines to other dealers around the state. I vividly remember the old truck I had to drive. It was a big, worn-out flatbed that was a bear to control. The link between the steering wheel and the rest of the steering mechanism had worn down. The steering wheel could move back and forth about four inches without affecting the steering at all. In the meantime, the front wheels would decide for themselves where they wanted to go. The truck would drift right, so I’d have to swing the wheel across and nudge it back to the left. Then it would go too far to the left, and I’d have to throw the wheel back to the right to get back on course. Sure made for an interesting job of driving down narrow city streets!
Humans are like that truck. The fall in the garden broke the connection between us and the Lord’s direction for us, and we wander off course repeatedly. We all need to be nudged, and in some cases tugged, back on track.
The Bible corrects our steering. Paul gets at this when he writes in II Timothy that the Bible teaches us what to think and shows us how to live. But, he writes, it also corrects our false thinking and exposes our wrong living. Only then, as we are repeatedly corrected and challenged by God’s Word, will we be prepared and equipped for life as followers of Christ (2 Tim. 3:1-17).
Because of that, true biblical communication cannot mean saying only those things that sit well, that reinforce a person’s current condition. We must be about the business of bringing truth to bear from outside our hearer’s world.
Jesus’ words are hard words, even when they speak life. He studied the moonlit face of a religious leader and said, “You must be born again.” To a father filled with grief he gently said, “Don’t be afraid; just believe and she will be healed.” He looked a self-reliant young man in the face and said, “Sell all you have and give it to the poor.” And to the large crowd of Lookie Lous who followed on his heels, eager for his next big trick, He said, “Any one of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.”
This was the difference between the true prophets and the false prophets in the Old Testament: the willingness to speak the whole of God’s truth, not just the easy part. Many are faithful to portions of God’s truth, but how many bring the whole counsel of God home to the hearts of the world today? Remember what God said to the Israelites through Jeremiah? (Jer. 23:1-18, 22, 29)
In a church that wants to make it as easy as possible for people to come to Christ, Jeremiah’s words hit home.
Roy Clements is among Britain’s finest preachers. I’ll never forget these words of his: “Prophetic preaching is speaking God’s truth to a specific place and time, digging in to where people are and applying the Bible in specific ways to their circumstances. It’s risky. But it is a risk we need to take. We can’t play it safe.”2
Every time we open the Bible, there is an inherent conflict in the lives of those who hear its words. If we filter out those words that confront, and speak only those words that comfort, we deflect the lightning strike and dissipate its power. Humanity awaits a bolt from heaven and receives only the smallest of static electricity shocks.
As Christ followers, we can hold to God’s Word with great confidence, standing on its adequacy and truthfulness. But try as we might, we can never perfectly believe or live what it teaches. We always fall outside of the circle it carefully proscribes. For that reason it must always be given room to call us to account. Always, always, we must let truth stand against us, not merely under our feet.
God’s Word comes from outside our sphere of existence — the unexpected word of grace, the piercing word of truth, crashing in from outside. That word reminds us that God meets people right where they are. But the transforming power of Jesus Christ is released only when we point people where God would have them be, and then point to Jesus Christ as the only way to get there.
God’s Word is for today’s world. It is a bolt of lightning sizzling with the promise of new life. When we, standing on the narrow ledge, faithfully bring Word and world together, the Word courses through us with power and hits home. And the world stops in its tracks, more than ready to listen.
1. Stephen Crane, The Open Boat, in The American Tradition in Literature, 6th ed., ed. George Perkins, et. al. (New York: Random House, 1985), 1046.
2. Roy Clements, “The Nature of Expository Preaching,” Contact 19, no. 2 (Summer 1990), 4.
Excerpted with permission from Culture Shift: Communicating God’s Truth to Our Changing World, Grand Rapids, Baker, 1998. ISBN 0-8010-9059-8.

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