John Meunier

'An arrow through the air'

Posts Tagged ‘Communication

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.

Written by John Meunier

May 6, 2014 at 5:42 pm

Posted in Communication

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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.

Written by John Meunier

February 20, 2014 at 12:44 pm

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.

Written by John Meunier

February 18, 2014 at 3:05 pm

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?


Written by John Meunier

July 31, 2013 at 11:55 am

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?

Written by John Meunier

April 4, 2013 at 12:34 am

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.

Written by John Meunier

January 11, 2013 at 3:11 pm

Posted in Communication, Preaching

Tagged with ,

An experiment at nonviolent communication

Asbury seminary president Timothy Tennent writes about why evangelicals spend so much time and energy talking about homosexual sex.

In one sense, you won’t read anything new here. But I do find the post and the comments thread an interesting case study in the way we talk past each other. For all the times we use terms like “Christian conferencing” and take classes on nonviolent communication and speak of hearing the other person before speaking, we do not practice that very well, at least not on the Internet. This is probably due as much to the nature of the medium as it is to our intentions. The Internet is not nearly as interactive or “social” as we claim it is.

What we tend to do in “conversations” about hard issues is lob arguments at each other. Often, these arguments include all manner of statements about the thoughts, motivations, and emotions of other people. Almost always as they go back and forth they lose all contact with the point the other person was trying to express or discuss. We seek to get our point across rather than listen to the other side. We don’t want to let anything with which we disagree go unchallenged. Or at least I know that is what I do when in a difficult conversation.

So, I want to try an exercise in listening on my blog. I’m going to try to write what I hear Tennent writing in his post. My goal here is not to offer my reactions or analysis, but to say accurately, without using a lot of direct quotation, what he would recognize as the point he is trying to make. I invite you to help me listen better by pointing out where and how my summary might miss important things.

Here is what I hear him writing:

Evangelical Christians feel the need to spend so much time and energy talking about and organizing actions with regard to homosexuality because they feel that harm is done to the church when something sinful is treated as if it were holy.

I’m not sure this is a fair statement of what he wrote. In a real conversation, I could ask him. (I have posted a version of this on his blog to try to do just that.) Before I react or respond, I would want to be certain I am hearing him as he intends to be heard.

What do you think? Is this close to what he is trying to say?

Written by John Meunier

November 29, 2012 at 8:40 am

Making faith concrete

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.

Written by John Meunier

October 11, 2012 at 11:14 am

What is holy conversation?

What do you apprehend to be more valuable than good sense, good nature, and good manners? All these are contained, and that in the highest degree, in what I mean by Christianity. Good sense (so called) is but a poor, dim shadow of what Christians call faith. Good nature is only a faint, distant resemblance of Christian charity. And good manners, if of the most finished kind that nature, assisted by art, can attain to, is but a dead picture of that holiness of conversation which is the image of God visibly expressed.

— John Wesley, “An Earnest Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion”

In a seminary class, we’ve been reading a book about non-violent communication. I’m sure that is why the quote above caught me eye. Wesley refers to holiness of conversation as the image of God visibly expressed. All our talk with and to each other should reflect God’s image.

As reasonable as this sounds, though, I do wonder what it means exactly. If I take Scripture as an example, I do not have to go far to find examples of communication that are not warm and fuzzy. The Marshall Rosenberg book linked above describes non-violent communication as avoiding all evaluation and judgment. It says that when we make a request we should not demand compliance.

Clearly, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit did not attend a workshop on Rosenberg’s principles. The apostle Paul and the prophets missed the seminar.

So, I wonder what Wesley meant by holy conversation. What does it mean to say the image of God is made visible in our talk with each other?

Written by John Meunier

October 5, 2012 at 6:56 am

Dick: We need to play by better rules

Dan Dick writes about being misquoted and treated poorly by critics. His final paragraph has an excellent exhortation for all of us:

As Christians, I believe we need to play by a better set of rules than the rest of the world.  Twisting words, ascribing intention, lying and trying to make those we disagree with look bad are all rules of the secular game — but we can do better.  Critics of contemporary Christianity accused us of being obtuse, and when we work so hard within the fold to attack and discredit each other, we merely fuel the fire.  There is a lot of room for us to learn to speak the truth in love.

I say, Amen.


Written by John Meunier

September 4, 2012 at 11:26 am

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