Creating Church: Audience & Language

photo credit: Keoni Cabral via photopin cc

Last year, I spoke to three distinct audiences and I noticed something. First, I found myself at Podcamp Cincinnati, speaking to technology people about making video podcasts and growing your audience on Twitter.

In February, I found myself talking to a group of church tech people about podcasting. It was a smaller group, but something about it was more comfortable, even though it was several states away from where the other two events were and from where I live.

In August, I spoke to a group of Authors and prospective authors about building their “platforms” (or audiences) using online tools.

In each case, I loved it, but the middle one was different, not because it was primarily about podcasting, even though that was also a difference. The main thing that I noticed is how I talked about my faith. When I talk to churches, I can be free to say what I feel.

When I talk to secular audiences, I don’t shy away from talking about what I believe, but I can’t take for granted that they understand what I know church audiences would.

Some might say that I wasn’t being myself. I think I’d say, “I’ve been all things to all people so that by all means, I might save some.” It’s not loving to choose talking to the wrong audience over being understood.

This really matters in church. By talking to Christians, you’re excluding unbelievers. By talking to unbelievers, you might exclude Christians. It’s possible not to, but you need to be very intentional in how you do it.

I think a lot of spiritual confusion comes from assuming that the audience is homogenous. How often does your church address different people in the crowd? Are you sure you only have Christians at your church? I don’t want you to judge people, but consider the possibility that maybe the person who seems the most holy is serving his heart out trying to earn God’s love. Maybe there’s a lady who looks happy, but is just masking her insecurity, knowing that she doesn’t have the freedom Jesus has given to others.

It changes your perspective when you realize that people who are far from God are everywhere, even in church. Keep this truth in mind.

Christians and non-Christians aren’t the only audiences you’ll need to deal with. Some people are older and have a wealth of experiences. Children are younger and have less. Men and women have different perspectives. Don’t believe that all men are the same or all women only react one way either.

Within similar groups, learning styles differ as well. When you think about it, there are only five ways for information to enter a person’s mind. You can see, touch, taste, smell, or hear it. Of those, most of the time, you don’t learn things by taste or smell as often as from seeing, hearing, or doing them. That’s not always the case, but if your church depends on hearing only, you’re leaving out a large portion of the audience.

When I was in seminary, it was right after PowerPoint was gaining acceptance. What we now take for granted was a new development. As I ended my time there, I was helping to make a video presentation to get money to continue the upkeep of the technological infrastructure. During that time, one of the older professors (and one of my favorites) talked about adding PowerPoint to the lectures he’d done for decades. He told about how he’d used the same material, taught in his same style, but merely added what we’d now consider a rudimentary presentation to each lecture. From the time he added these presentations until his interview a few years later, he said that grades increased across the board.

Another professor I had who’s doctorate was in “instructional media” taught a class all about using technology in church. One of his key points was simply that the more sense you touch, the higher the retention of the material.

Church isn’t only about education, but part of what happens is education. Consider how you can include visual and kinesthetic learners (people who learn by doing) as well as auditory ones.

In some ways, older denominations are already better at parts of this. A cathedral with beautiful stained glass, constantly burning incense, and liturgy all engage senses that quietly sitting, listening to a message don’t. Of course, always doing it the same way removes the creative element.

Look at how you can touch more senses. To me it seems obvious that you’d have the smell of bacon on a men’s weekend (my stomach just growled).

You might not have considered that part of why Jesus chose the symbols for the Lord’s supper is because you see, touch, taste, smell, and hear things during it. This celebration and remembrance of His life, interacts with how we’re made to take in information and remember things. It really is amazing.

How you interact with the people at your church matters not only with who you have, what senses you touch, but also what language you use. Think about how you speak at work, if you don’t work at your church. When someone pays you a compliment do you say, “I’m just so blessed that Jesus lets me do this work,” or do you say “Thanks. I’m glad I can help,” while thinking the first? Maybe that’s a bad example because I’ve worked with Christians who did just that while I was trying to be understandable by the people I was with.

About ten years ago, my wife and I were part of a couple’s lifegroup. During our time, a couple our same age joined the group. During one of our discussions, one person said, “please hold me accountable.” Tracy meekly raised her hand, “What does that mean?” she asked. We explained it, but I remember thinking about all the “church words” I’d used in my life.

Do you know how many words you use in the church that haven’t been translated from their Biblical origins? Why do we say “tithe” instead of “tenth”? Why are people “baptized” instead of “washed”? Is the message of Jesus’ coming, death, and resurrection “the Gospel” or “good news”? I know that Biblical words sound more holy, but they didn’t start out that way. Look at “baptize,” for example. When Luke talks about how the Pharisees wash their hands and dishes in Luke 11:37-41, he uses the same word as we transliterate (change from the Greek alphabet to the English one, but don’t otherwise change the word) to “baptism.” In fact, I was just looking at that passage in Greek in Google Chrome. It asked if I wanted to translate the Greek to English. For fun, I tried it. Google thought the word that was translated by English-speaking scholars as “wash” should be “baptize.” That’s because in other instances it isn’t translated.

I don’t think this is the attitude of 1 Corinthians 9:22 where Paul says he’d “become all things to all people so that by all means [he] might save some.”

It’s also not the attitude that Jesus had in Matthew 22:23-33 when Jesus argued with the Sadducees. The Pharisees had long argued with the Sadducees about the resurrection. The problem was that the Sadducees didn’t acknowledge any of the Hebrew Bible other than the first five books. Arguments from Psalms or Ezekiel will fall on deaf ears. Jesus quotes Exodus 3:6 and makes the same point. Notice the Sadducees had no response. They were prepared to argue that Joshua and following weren’t scripture. They couldn’t say that about Exodus.

Follow Jesus’ lead. Find commonality with whoever you’re talking to. Start there. Speak to the audience you have, not the audience you want. The most creative service ever conceived delivered to an audience that can’t understand it is absolutely useless. Don’t squander your opportunities.


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