One of the great blessings of my full-time job teaching writing courses at Indiana University is that I get to re-read Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath every semester. It always reminds me of important things I have forgotten or let slide.
Here is a snippet from the chapter of the book on the power of being concrete:
What makes something “concrete”? If you can examine something with your senses, it’s concrete. A V8 engine is concrete. “High performance” is abstract. Most of the time, concreteness boils down to specific people doing specific things. … Concrete language helps people, especially novices, understand new concepts. Abstraction is the luxury of the expert. If you’ve got to teach an idea to a room full of people, and you aren’t certain what they know, concreteness is the only safe language.
When I read these words, I find church-related communication problems leaping to my mind. In the church, we specialize in abstract language. We have little choice in many cases because we are talking about invisible things. Learning how to make something abstract concrete is among the greatest challenges in teaching and preaching.
This is why Jesus taught so often in stories. When asked what he meant by the word “neighbor,” he did not pull out a dictionary. He told a story. Stories are always concrete.
The reverse of this insight is also helpful to us. Since concrete things are memorable, it is those things that come to define the meaning of abstract concepts for us. For instance, what does it mean to participate in the vital congregations initiative of the United Methodist Church? For most of us, it means collecting data and entering it on a web site every week. The concrete experience of church is bureaucracy.
You might not find my musing very interesting, but I can assure you that the book that sparks them is worth your time. It is worth your time. You’ll enjoy reading it, too.