Friday, January 15, 2010

Palatable Messages

There are accusations being thrown around the internet against certain Christian proponents eager to be relevant to our rapidly changing society. The accusations suggest that these leaders recommend adjusting our message in order to better reach the emerging generation of post moderns. Now, I’m pretty open to change, but I’ve been asking myself a lot of questions about this recommendation.

There is no question that we need to be more relevant and that we really miss that goal a lot of the time. But do we change our message to be more acceptable or politically correct? (Don’t attack me. I see our message being diluted everywhere!) To me the question is what can I change in order to be more relevant? This question begs serious meditation time. Of course, the safest place to go for answers is to Jesus.

If anyone could have been tempted to change his message to be more “palatable” it would have been Jesus. He received so much opposition, criticism, and hatred for his teaching. While he had crowds following him, there were many secret meetings of people to plan ways to trip him up publicly and to plot his demise. He actually changed a lot of things from the traditional ways. So what can we change? These are some of my thoughts:

1. Our Attitudes

When Jesus began his teaching ministry, the religious leaders were, frankly speaking, bigots. Their attitudes towards sinners, adulterers, publicans, Samaritans, lepers, prostitutes, and Gentiles were appalling. I see Jesus ministering with a totally different attitude. He ate with sinners and publicans, touched lepers, sat with Samaritans, ministered to prostitutes and adulterers, and healed Gentiles. His attitude enraged the religious leaders and endeared him to the needy. He never compromised holiness to love the sinners.

Not only did Jesus model godly attitudes, he spent significant discipling time in nurturing attitude change in his disciples. He addressed their bigotry, ethnocentricity, pride, and indifference to children and beggars. He took them places that made them uncomfortable and stretched their love muscles.

An American survey done among young people found “the most common perceptions of present-day Christianity are antihomosexual (an image held by 91 percent of young outsiders), judgmental (87 percent), and hypocritical (85 percent)” (Kinnaman & Lyons, p. 27). Maybe the first thing I need to consider changing is not my message but my attitudes. Would I fit into the Pharisee category, Jesus category, or the disciple category in terms of my attitude towards sinners and the needy? What needs to change?

2. Our Commitment to Truth

When Jesus appeared on the religious scene he found the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law very committed to their truth and their traditions, but when it came to making a public statement about John the Baptist they showed the real nature of their truth commitment, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From men’ – we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet” (Mat 21;26). I overhear their debate about what the people will think and say, thus exposing their determiner of truth - people’s possible responses! So much for commitment to truth.

In contrast, Jesus taught truth no matter who was offended or who was delighted. His message was not swayed by response, even when the disciples expressed their fear that the Pharisees were offended. His message was undiluted truth in all its sharp lines and cutting edges.

I can sit in my chair and criticize the Pharisees, but know the reality is that the Pharisaical responses go through my head also when I need to speak truth. If I say that Jesus is the Son of God will I offend my listener? If I say Jesus is the only way, will I be considered judgmental and switched off or excluded? My challenge is to be so radically committed to truth and speaking truth that God can call on me at any time, any place, to any person, and to speak any word that he directs. Truth remains undiluted truth.

3. Our Methods

It’s interesting to consider how Jesus changed methods and why. I don’t think that Jesus changed his approach because the religious leaders’ methods were outdated or irrelevant. I’d like to suggest that his methods came from the heart of the Father. Not just the how-to strategies, but the heart of the Father to touch the people. Jesus walked among the common throng. He preached in the synagogues and on the hillside and lake side. He taught in homes, at feasts, and parties. He taught in parables and stunned the people with his simplicity and authority. He healed crowds of the infirm from a home. His methods conveyed acceptance and compassion. He made himself accessible to the most common inquirer.

So, yes, I think it is valid to change methods if my changes are directed by God’s heart. There is nothing so sacred about preaching from a pulpit, or preaching in a church, or preaching from the front that we cannot lay down our traditions to use other methods that will get us with people and express acceptance and compassion to those outside of normal religious gatherings. There’s nothing so sacred about door to door evangelism or crusades that we can’t change them for other methods that are more likely to reach people where they are at. And there is nothing so sacred about teaching an hour lecture and closing in prayer that I cannot change methodologies for better dialogue and understanding.

4. Our Understanding of People

One thing that has struck me while meditating on Jesus’ teaching methods was how clearly he understood his audience – to the point that he seemed to be a mind reader. Oh, yes, he had divine ability to read minds, but I’m not sure that all of his understanding came from divine revelation. He literally walked with the crowds, and he ate at their homes. He was an astute observer of behavior and attitudes. His teaching was eerily relevant to their lifestyle. In contrast, the religious leaders seemed to be way out of sync with the people and primarily taught the Law supported by historical interpretations.

As I look at myself, I must ask how well I understand the audience to whom I am ministering. How much time do I spend walking with them and talking in their homes? Do I understand what they are thinking, what conclusions they would lean towards when hearing teaching, what burning questions they have, or what issues they are wrestling with when they are alone? And finally I have to ask, what changes should I make so that I can understand them better?

Do I need to change my message to be more relevant? I don’t think so. I think there are a lot more changes I can make to be more relevant and Christ-like in this generation – changes that can make my message more palatable without comprising truth. How about you?

Kinnaman, David. UnChristian. 2007. Baker Books.

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