Tailoring the message

Acts 17:16-34

Some years ago I came out of a grocery store to find a small family standing in front of the store, looking very serious. The father had a Bible in his hand and was waving it around as he spoke. Now and again he would open it, read something and then point to the words on the page as if to say, “See, it’s here in black and white that this is what you are supposed to do, say and believe.” I’ve seldom run across street preachers in my life (although a dear and valued friend was once one), so this one had a kind of fascination although I didn’t agree with his points. I know that there are places in the world that are famous for their street preachers or orators, places where anyone can come and speak, hopefully attracting some interest, sometimes inviting heckling for their views. Still, they have a place to speak aloud what they think and believe, and it may be the only place they have that freedom or opportunity.

Paul in the marketplace preaching was probably a bit like my store-front evangelist, but Paul picked a place where discussion, debate and rhetoric was a staple. The Greeks were especially fond of debates and good logical oratory and luckily Paul had enough of a silver tongue to engage some of those gathered there. Still, some of what he said was a bit strange, so they invited him up to the Aregopagus, the chief court of Athens where the elite intelligentsia who specialized in religion, morals and teachings sat and adjudicated. Paul was wily, flattering them for not wanting to miss the worship of even gods they didn’t know about and so including a place dedicated to “the Unknown God.” He was there to tell them about that unknown god. He did a good job with it, being both cajoling and informative, starting with the role of God in creation (which they would have no problem understanding and accepting) but then developing the message of resurrection which, to them, was incomprehensible. Still, a few believed, not a bad start given the tough audience Paul faced.

To be effective, a speaker has to tailor the message to the audience. I know that I can’t teach four-year-olds using words and phrases that a PhD would use, but there are times when talking to PhDs that I need to use the same kind of words and phrases I’d use for four-year-olds. In times of stress, words that I normally understand become as incomprehensible as if they were spoken in Urdu or Swedish. I can respond to reasoned discourse but I don’t respond at all to forceful argument where the speaker is thoroughly convinced that I am wrong and will batter me with words until I agree and come around to their way of thinking. Years ago I heard it said that in order to give criticism, one should first start with something positive, then deliver the criticism so that it becomes about the behaviors or words of the person but not about the person themselves, then finish up with encouragement for change. This is precisely how Paul spoke that day, and while it didn’t work unanimously, it did work with a small group. And, as everybody knows, it only takes a small seed to grow a mighty tree.

Sometimes I hear preachers passing on what is supposed to be the good news of Jesus as if it were Limburger cheese or a shot of cod liver oil. You have to get through the smell or the taste in order for the message to do you some good. I don’t really respond to that kind of rhetoric. I don’t need to be hammered upon about my shortcomings and flaws; I am very well aware of them as I have to live with them on a daily basis, try as I will to change them. I know I’m a sinner; I don’t need someone to inform me of that. I also know, though, that I have a God who loves me despite the flaws, a Savior who has lived and died so I could understand how much that love was worth, and a Spirit that waits to guide me in loving others. Now, to my way of thinking, that is truly Good News.

Good St. Francis’s dictum of “Preach always, and sometimes use words” is probably one of the best bits of information that can be passed on to anyone, whether they are street preachers, pastors in a pulpit or just people in the pews who go about their daily lives and help make the world a better place. I need to keep the message short; I’m giving good news, not a dissertation. I need to make it appealing; how many people are really receptive to a harangue about their flaws? I need to make it relevant; what makes us (and the world we live in) better, more peaceful, more conscious of others, more equal? The early Christians attracted many new followers not by preaching on the street corner expounding the sinfulness of humanity but by simply loving one another and showing that love, the same kind of love Jesus showed over and over toward people that others scorned, feared or hated. That was good news passed on in a language and a way that promoted the faith.

If I want to pass on the message of the good news, I need to also listen to Paul as well as to Francis: tailor the message to the audience, keep it short and sweet (well, maybe not PRECISELY like Paul who could get a bit wordy at times, as can I, come to think of it), cajole rather than cudgel and, most of all, never miss an opportunity to witness without words. I know there is a time for criticism and fault-telling, but if it can be done with honey rather than vinegar, it’s easier to swallow. Jesus spoke tough words, but he also knew when honey worked better and sharp words would only break a wounded reed.

I need to think today on where I am using honey and where I am using vinegar. Am I sharing good news or am I projecting guilt, doom and gloom? Most of all, how, when and where am I sharing the good news, with or without words?

I think I need to be more conscious of my “audience”, the people with whom I interact during the course of my day. That’s a tall order, but then, Jesus said it wasn’t always going to be easy, even though he may not have used precisely that phrase. I think he was right, but I have to try.

Linda Ryan co-mentors 2 EfM Online groups and keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter

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