Gap Theory v2.0
What do people really understand when they read our material? Here's a plea for rethinking some of our evangelistic communication.
I spent the last few days of 2017 writing a book for the end of 2018 – I don’t think I’ve ever been so prepared in advance!
The book is the shortest I’ve ever written (and I’ve written some pretty short ones) but also the hardest. It is an evangelistic book for Christmas 2018 (only 340 sleeps away at the time of writing). Someone advised me that it would be easier to write it this Christmas time rather than in the middle of the summer. Having tried both, I can confirm that they were absolutely right.
Why was it so hard? It was not the exegesis particularly – it’s based on 2 Corinthians 8:9 and the text work is relatively straightforward. Nor was it the illustrations. An evangelistic book needs lots of these and the December newspapers provide a fill of suitably festive stories.
No, it was none of those. What was hard was the language.
I had to write something relevant to the vast majority of people who have no idea about the gospel and are left completely cold by Christian jargon. There are two issues at stake here. One is content. The other is how that content is communicated.
Mind the gap
When it comes to content, I’m increasingly convinced that we assume far too much. There is, in other words, a much bigger gap than we perceive between our world and the world of the huge number of people we are trying to reach.
This came home to me when I posted a thread on social media asking for suggestions of – in very simple terms, terms that someone outside the church might understand – what the riches of Christ were that we inherit through his poverty. The suggestions were almost universally brilliant. But only for people with 30+ years of Christian experience behind them. I was staggered that pastors (for the most part) could not conceive of what an unbeliever might comprehend.
I’m not pointing the finger at anyone. The very reason I posed the question because I was facing the same battle. However, when I pointed out halfway through the thread what was being missed, it didn’t change the quality at all. We almost seemed incapable of addressing the question.
Keep it simple, stupid
Back in the 1960’s the US Navy coined an operating approach that has become famous – KISS, standing for ‘Keep it Simple Stupid’. The paradigm is that the simpler the operation the more likely it is to be carried out successfully.
Our communication needs to follow the same pattern. My social media enquiry also revealed untold riches of complexity, especially given that I had explained it was for a short evangelistic book. The same mistakes we often make about content are compounded by failing to communicate things appropriately.
I know I make the same mistake myself. I was quite pleased with the way I de-jargonised my book. Job done! But then I handed it to a trusted colleague and it was returned to me – rightly – covered in red ink. ‘Too much jargon!’ was the feedback. ‘People won’t understand what you mean.’ I was blind to it and chances are you are too.
Reading over lots of evangelistic material I wonder if this is a particular besetting sin. We seem unable (with a few notable exceptions) to be able to convey simple truths simply. There is far too much of a gap that we singularly fail to cross. This is my Gap Theory v2.0.
Nothing to do with creation, as it happens, but everything to do with new creation – and our struggle to preach the gospel in such a way that the message can be grasped and believed. For the record, I don’t think it’s a criticism of books or preaching alone, but one which permeates every layer of church.
However, those of us at the front can make a start. As evangelistic opportunities come your way – perhaps as you begin to prepare for Easter, here’s one big thing to keep in mind: mind the gap.