Feeling mislabeled

Timothy Tennent argues that we have in the United Methodist Church two groups:

What we actually have is a group (however imperfectly) which is committed to historic Christianity. The second group (however imperfectly) is committed to a re-imagined church. One, however flawed, is committed to the recovery and defense of historic Christian orthodoxy. The other, however nice and erudite, has not demonstrated a robust commitment to historic Christian orthodoxy. Thus, we actually have two groups; one orthodox and one heterodox.

As you might imagine, his terms have provoked applause and disagreement. Those who find themselves described as orthodox appreciate that someone is describing their sense of things well. Those described as heterodox are less enthusiastic about his categories.

This happens the other way, too. Some of us are called bigots over doctrine. Others engage in a more subtle kind of labeling that goes like this. “When I was young, I believed what the church taught, but now that I am older and have thought about it more …” Or another variation: “Many thoughtful/intelligent Christians look at these questions and …” These constructions appear to suggest only immature or non-thoughtful people take the opposite position.

Even when all we are trying to do is describe out own position in positive ways, we end up labeling people who disagree with us in negative ways.

Perhaps this is just the price of trying to think and speak clearly.

I suppose the Donatists and Pelagians did not like be called heretics, either. Church of England stalwarts did not like John Wesley going around defining “real” Christians in terms that eliminated most of them from the term.

But is interesting to me that nearly everyone feels that they are being described in inaccurate terms and in ways that are not honoring what they are trying to say. I wonder if this is just the way it is or if there is something that can be done about it.

A failure to communicate?

David Watson looks at the United Methodist Church’s main web site. If our mission is making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, he asks, why is that mission so hard to discern from the web site?

Perhaps the public website should take a more evangelistic approach. How about, right up front, a link to the testimonies of people who have accepted Christ and known his transforming power? How about a link to a video called something like, “Why Should I Choose Jesus?” Or perhaps a video, or at least a page, called something like, “Why Does Christ Make A Difference?” Perhaps one could have the option to chat or have a video call with a pastor. Maybe it would be helpful to have something on the basics of Christian belief.

Is this how Christians should disagree?

I found this an interesting interview between former United Methodist pastor Frank Schaefer and a critic. Of course, the host big-footed the interview some, but the tone and exchange was much better than most of our conversations. It is about 45 minutes in length. The two end with expressions of mutual respect that is not common in our vitriolic discourse.

Can we listen to each other?

I read comments all the time that I don’t understand. I don’t understand them because they generally come from Christians who are both intelligent and capable of empathy.

A person criticizes “contemporary” worship by saying the only thing the worship leader cares about is looking hip and being cool. Someone else argues that pastors today care about being “authentic” while previous generations did not. Another person says some Christians care more about hate than Jesus.

Shouldn’t Christians do a better job of listening to other people? (And here — in case there is any confusion — I include myself. Shouldn’t I do a better job?)

Is there really any worship leader who has as his or her primary goal “being hip”? Did pastors in 1930 want to be in-authentic? Would any Christian claim that his or her primary interest was in hating other people?

Every thing I’ve ever been taught about effective communication starts with listening. It starts with being able to hear a person clearly enough that we can state back to that person what they said in a way that they would recognize as their own words and meaning.

I think it is a close to universal desire of people to be listened to when they are trying to say something. Isn’t it — therefore — a Christian imperative to be good listeners? We do for others what we would wish them to do for us.

Listening does not require agreement. But does not Jesus require us to listen to each other?

 

Should we call it business rhetoric?

In response to my last post, a colleague offered up “rhetoric” as the field of theory that gives shape to what we do in business communication. This is a notion that has occurred to me before.

But with the little goad from my colleague, I got out my rhetoric books and spent a bit of time with them. In a nice little introductory text called The Essential Guide to Rhetoric, the authors draw a distinction between communication and rhetoric.

All rhetoric involves communication, they write, but not all communication is rhetoric. Communication theory really came into its own in the 20th century. Classic works like The Mathematical Theory of Communication laid the groundwork for information science. Scholars funded by government research developed theories of mass communication and would later establish the study of communication as a university discipline. The classic models tended to — at the most general level — break down communication into messages, senders, receivers, and media.

But the key point in The Essential Guide to Rhetoric is that “communication” happens any time a sender of any kind sends a message to a receiver. So, for instance, my stomach sending hunger message to my brain via nerves is a form of communication. The remote control sending a change channel signal to the TV is communication. So is the stop light flashing red as I approach it.

Communication also includes the president giving a speech or a college professor lecturing. In these situations, the outcome of the act of communication is contingent on the response of the audience. A garage door opener — when working properly — always responds in the manner we expect. It is not free to disagree or draw mistaken conclusions. The president’s audience is free to reject him, which is why he uses a variety of strategies to persuade his audience.

For the authors of the essential guide, this is what differentiates rhetoric and communication. Rhetoric is always contingent and it is always strategic. Its outcome depends on the audience response to the rhetorical situation. And it is carried out with the intention of moving the audience toward a desired belief, feeling, or action.

So back to my question: Does calling what we do business communication mislabel our field? Does it imply that we deal with a broader range of issues than we really do? Should we call it business rhetoric instead?

Preaching effects

In the class I teach at Indiana University,  use a classic piece on communication early in the semester to set up conversations with the students about the processes and parts of communication.

Part of the chapter is a four-part explication of what has to happen for communication to have a chance to have the effect you desire.

  • You must gain the audience’s attention.
  • You must use a set of “signs” that the audience can understand and that the audience interprets in the same way you do.
  • You must evoke a need within the audience.
  • You must give the audience a way to act or respond that is possible for the audience.

In both the chapter and the class conversation we talked about the fact that communication almost never has the effect we intend if we do not start from where our audience is. You need to start within the beliefs and values the audience already holds and  then try to move them toward the goal.

None of this is new or revolutionary, which is why I use it with sophomores.

But it does get me thinking about the sermon as an act of communication. I hear common sermon advice in here. Andy Stanley wrote a whole book that pretty much covers these same points. Rick Warren writes about the need for to evoke a felt need. Paul in Athens famously followed the bulk of this advice when he preached. Even John Wesley shows in his journals how much he thinks about where his audience is as he determines what to preach.

And yet, I am also mindful of how many voices — especially post-liberals and neo-Barthians — counsel treating the sermon as an impossibility. Will Willimon writes often about the fact that it requires a miracle for us to hear the sermon rightly.

So, I wonder about the balance between technique and Spirit in preaching — and communication in general.