By Jocelyn Lee, Editorial/Marketing Intern
When attending a church service, it’s natural for me to want to gravitate toward those targeted at a younger audience. Modern sermon illustrations, exciting presentation, upbeat worship music, and a relatable preacher all make the message more appealing for people my age (I’m about to go into my freshman year of college). Sometimes, however, I can’t help wonder if the extra effort to make the message more engaging for a specific audience could overpower the simplicity of the gospel. Is it wrong to tailor the presentation of the gospel to a specific audience or is it simply a more effective way of preaching? Do all these extras used to attract people mean that these churches are no longer trusting God’s word to stand on its own and amass followers by itself? Or is it simply obeying the call to spread the good news as effectively as possible so all can hear?
One book I proofread for Hendrickson recently finally helped me answer these questions in a nuanced manner. Words and Witnesses: Communication Studies in Christian Thought from Athanasius to Desmond Tutu explores the insights of 43 influential theologians on topics in communication studies. Reading this book, I was surprised at how relatable these centuries-old theologians were to the modern day church. In particular, I came across an interesting chapter on John Calvin, who held a strong, if not controversial, stance on this issue of accommodating the gospel.
John Calvin’s Stance
John Calvin believed that there is much evidence for God himself accommodating his message to his audience, which means we also are called to accommodate his message by changing the presentation to fit the audience. One example he gave in his commentary on St. John’s Gospel is that of Jesus resurrecting Lazarus from the dead. Kenneth R. Chase summarizes Calvin’s views, explaining:
In Luke 11:41–42, Jesus lifts his eyes upward and thanks the Father for answering his prayer, presumably the prayer… requesting Lazarus’s resurrection. What is at stake here, for Calvin, is why Jesus would ask God to do something that Jesus already has the power to do. Calvin answers this question by first focusing on what the text says about the prayer. In verses 41–42, Jesus gives credit to the Father for demonstrating that Jesus is, indeed, sent by God. Calvin explains that Jesus’ full majesty could not be perceived by the Jewish onlookers, so Jesus’ acknowledgment of God eases those viewers into a more heightened appreciation for Jesus. This is Jesus “accommodating Himself to man’s capacity” (16, v. 42), taking into account human limitations. Jesus vocalizes his prayer so that onlookers glimpse God’s glory.
Surely if Jesus took the initiative to vocalize a prayer that didn’t need to be vocalized, then adapting one’s presentation to the audience must be in God’s will for evangelism. Although not what I would have intuitively thought about the word of God, this insight is consistent with other aspects of the Bible. For example, God oversaw the production of four different Gospels from four different points of view for four different audiences, despite all being centered on the same message. Even though Matthew is written to a Jewish audience, Luke is also included in the New Testament, written to a Gentile audience instead. Even though John writes to a general world audience, Mark is written specifically to the Greek-speaking world.* God adjusted the presentation of the message to fit the audience both when Jesus was on earth and through the writing of the word of God itself.
The Problem that Arises from His Perspective
While this seems like a succinct enough answer to the question, something still feels unsettling to me about the idea of God changing his rhetoric to sell his message. Kenneth Chase analyses this adverse reaction as a product of how culture abuses the gap between one’s “strategic intentions and delivered message.” Everywhere we look “the gap between strategic intentions and delivered message has permeated nearly every aspect of Western society. Through incessant marketing fueling a consumerist approach to life’s promises and potentials, we see all persuasion as designed to sell something, whether secular or sacred.” We are constantly bombarded by advertisements and manipulative marketing that present a false sense of what a certain product or experience will be. Rhetoric has become a tainted word when politicians and celebrities use it as a means of self-promotion. So how then can the adjusting of God’s delivered message to his audience be a reflection of his loving character if everywhere else this gap between communication and intent leads to deceit? Is God condoning manipulation?
A More Nuanced View
In Words and Witnesses, Kenneth Chase rectifies John Calvin’s controversial view with what we know about God’s nature in Words and Witnesses by reflecting on Calvin’s big-picture message. Although Calvin has managed to pass onto us this harmful image of God that might be consistent with modern day politicians and advertisers,
Calvin also vigorously resists the notion that God’s accommodation to us is inconsistent with his message. At times, Calvin explains God’s accommodation as fully consistent with his nature; God’s adapted communication to humanity is both message and medium of his existence. We look at the accommodating revelation as a reflection of God who reaches out to his people through “wonderful condescension . . . led by a general feeling of love for his whole flock.” The God we see through his accommodation, therefore, is not a god who has hidden strategic intentions, but the God whose love is revealed in and through his communication. When God accommodates humanity, God is loving humanity.
Even though the presentation is adjusted with the audience in mind, the presentation itself also promotes the content of the message. The two are not at odds with each other, so there is no deceit involved. When advertisers change the delivered message to vary from their strategic intention, they are doing it with the intention of making money or gaining success. It is therefore reflective of a selfish nature; there is no love involved or considered in the process. However, God’s adjusted delivered message is not one inconsistent with his character; it reveals that God is a loving God who is willing to explain things more clearly to us.
What Does This Mean for Us?
In response to this new understanding of how God can strategically accommodate his message of love in a still loving way, “We approach others not with strategic intentions that must be disguised, lest our true message be rejected, but with strategic intentions of how to faithfully utter the glories of Christ’s good news.” So as to whether or not a church can accommodate the gospel by providing engaging elements of their service, it will depend on if the adjusted presentation is consistent with the message, whether it has been done out of love or not. Does the pastor take on a casual, relatable tone solely out of a desire to keep church attendance from slipping? Or does he do so as a way to build a family-like environment that embodies what the church is supposed to look like? Does the exciting music serve merely as an attempt to mimic the trends of pop culture? Or does it allow a worship that reflects a fuller and more exuberant gratitude toward God?
Of course, we can never perfectly judge anyone’s intentions, but when we attempt in our own ways to evangelize and shepherd those around us, it’s helpful to keep in mind Chase’s insight of what we can learn from John Calvin. Adapting the message to the audience in order to reflect God’s love and relatability to them will help us channel John Calvin’s insights into communication more effectively. As we continue learning more and more about how we can communicate with others in a God-honoring way, we will also continue shaping our relationship with the world to reflect God’s character.
Jocelyn Lee is an Editorial/Marketing Intern at Hendrickson Publishers. She recently graduated as co-valedictorian from high school and will soon start pursuing a Bachelor’s Degree from Regent University. In her free time you can find her changing her major every other day and listening to the same three musicals on repeat.
How should Christians address specific problems, controversies, and crises in communication today? By looking at influential Christian thinkers throughout history, we can identify wisdom that enriches us today in practical ways.
Words and Witnesses explores various influential Christian thinkers and theologians from across church history in order to expand our contemporary conversations in communication studies and media theory. Individual chapters written by contributing scholars focus on major Christian thinkers, starting with Athanasius, St. Augustine, and John Chrysostom, moving through the Middle Ages to address figures such as Anselm, Nicholas of Cusa, Teresa of Lisieux, and arriving in the present with reflections on the work of John Howard Yoder, C. S. Lewis, Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Kuyper, and Desmond Tutu, among others.
Each chapter delves into how the contemporary church, and scholars of media, can turn to these influential Christian thinkers as resources for addressing specific problems in communication today. By analyzing church practices, doctrine, and biblical texts this book provides the church with resources and inspiration to communicate in distinctly Christian ways.
For more information about Words and Witnesses, visit our website.