The Complications of Communication

April 30, 2013

Yesterday I spent a good part of the day participating in an online discussion, trying to sort out what appeared to be a miscommunication through the halls of Facebook. A post appeared within a Facebook group, other members of the group reacted while others tried to ask helpful questions. The “conversation” escalated into paranoia at times, and without any more substantive information to feed it, speculation took over. I finally called the original poster (is that a word?) to clarify the genesis of the issue that had come to light, and by day’s end it appeared resolution was around the corner. But wow, it was a time-consuming and upsetting affair for some.

So this morning, I brought up the general topic of communication with the Peet’s conversation group, and noted how unusual it is for such a group to get together face-to-face on a regular basis, without an agenda, to listen and encourage one another. This is really what the gym rats are doing, and it is a beautiful thing.

So beautiful, in fact, that this morning a store patron stopped at our table and said, “I’ve seen you here two days in a row, and I just have to tell you, my mother met with a coffee shop group daily for decades.” Tears welled up in her eyes, and the group immediately pulled up a chair for her and invited her to sit with us. We drew out her story: her mother, who died just a few years ago in her mid-90’s, formed lasting and deep friendships in her small town. She sounded like quite a woman, active in her community, involved at school, encouraging of the next generation. She tapped into the social network of a town, but never did she gossip, L said. She was present and available, and her daughter misses her very much.

The two situations I have just described illustrate the complicated challenge we have as 21st century western citizens. Communication has taken new forms, increased to lightning speed, and depersonalized in some venues. Information can be passed quickly, but feelings can derail in the process of transmission. So much depends on the actual words, without the supporting evidence of gestures, inflection, or facial expressions. [And people can be particularly clumsy with their words.] The personal touch is remarkably important to getting a message across, and yet we live in an age in which “touch” has become a FB “poke,” and “personal” is masked by a User ID or fantasy-land avatar.

A recurring discussion question has arisen periodically in the Christian church: “What if Jesus’ ‘fullness of time’ had been the 21st century instead of the 1st century?” How would Jesus have communicated the arrival of the Kingdom of God and taught his lessons on discipleship if he had come this year instead of ~29 ad?

I think Jesus would have done this year exactly what he did then: he would have looked people in the eye, addressed their particular concerns, and demonstrated the good news in his actions on their behalf. I think there would be plenty of pictures posted on Facebook of healed persons, YouTube videos of the lame now walking, and perhaps wall-to-wall coverage of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. But Jesus himself would probably not be posting or tweeting, preferring to give people his full, personal attention, discern their needs, address their questions, and respond to the raised eyebrow or frowning visage. Even back then, Jesus was unconcerned with reaching “the whole world” himself. His disciples would be commissioned to do so later, instructed to “make disciples of all nations by baptizing and teaching them.” Jesus’ method was to exert the maximum impact in tailor-made fashion, investing in the lives of a few, and yes, talking to crowds on occasion but always following up with personal encounters.

It is for this reason that I think the Church must rethink its methods of communication. Sure, a church website is a great, efficient way to give notice of upcoming events and distribute registration forms. But for too long, the Presbyterians and Lutherans I know from personal experience have relied on a detached method of sharing the gospel, believing that attracting people to church accomplishes that. I am not so sure anymore that this is the best approach. It may be time to mingle at the coffee shop, notice the tears welling, pull up a chair, and just listen with empathy. When we interact with people at this level, the opportunities to share Christ’s love and his gospel can’t help but surface. I experience this dynamic just about every time I join my gym ladies with my decaf sugar-free mocha, non-fat, no whip: a meaty question, a significant problem, an appeal for insight comes bubbling to the surface. These are the teachable moments in which an informative conversation can make the difference between chaos and meaning, sorrow and joy, confusion and clarity, or falsehood and truth. And it is very good to be there to see their faces, to be welcomed, and to love their idiosyncrasies even while hearing all about the life they are experiencing in this bewildering 21st century.



5 Responses to “The Complications of Communication”

  1. RL McNabb Says:

    what a wonderful explanation of my feelings – i could not have expressed it any better! Obviously, I agree – we need more of this for better communication on all levels.

  2. Arlin Talley Says:

    I would agree wholeheartedly. However, we given ourselves to finding kindred souls and forming affinity groups, often requiring us to look well beyond the coffee shop. If we focused our attention on the local folks I think we’d be the better for it. We’d have to learn to listen and talk with folks around us who might not see things our way. Face to face is almost always a good thing.

  3. Jodie Says:

    What a wonderful post, Mary. That’s the side of you I really love.


  4. Whit Brisky Says:

    Just so Mary.

    A recent pastor of mine spend many hours at Caribou Coffee doing one-on-one evangelism. But of course it is not just coffee shops, and especially not just pastors.

    There are more “nones” than ever, more nominal Christians that are not hearing the Gospel either because they never go to church or because their pastor never preaches It, and more people of diverse other faith traditions we need to reach for the Gospel right here in America. Our task is to bring the Gospel to unbelievers, not to attract the already saved.

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