“Go Tell It on the Mountain” and other popular Christmas songs emphasize the story of Jesus’ birth and the joy and peace Christ brings. The angels communicated the message to Mary, Joseph and other individuals before Jesus came into the world, and then told the shepherds and others to spread the word to the world.
Today, a variety of media platforms deliver the message — from snail-mailed cards, to emailed Advent devotions, to sermon podcasts, to Merry Christmas tweets. But often the message is drowned out in the wave of communication that hits mailboxes, email accounts, Twitter, Facebook and websites—and the barrage does not end at Christmas but continues throughout the year.
While many individuals and congregations may concentrate on deciding which platforms to use and how to manipulate them for maximum exposure, some theologians believe churches first must consider the message.
What is the proclamation to be delivered?
Understand the message
“We need greater clarity about what exactly we mean by the gospel, or what we think the Christian message actually is,” noted David Gushee, director of the Center for Theology and Public Life and professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University.
Today the message is “muddled,” he added, caught “between the personal salvation message of the Billy Graham era and the kingdom of God message” about which he and others have been writing during the last 20 or so years.
“Then, of course, there are all kinds of less-satisfying variants, mainly therapeutic and self-esteem oriented,” he said.
Terry Rosell understands the message of salvation from a soteriological point of view. The message takes on a different complexion based upon “interpretation of human history, of written documents recognized as ‘Scripture,’ and our individual or corporate experiences of God in Jesus Christ — or Christ in God,” he said.
Rosell, the Rosemary Flanigan Chair for the Center for Practical Bioethics in Kansas City, serves as professor of pastoral theology for ethics and ministry praxis at Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Shawnee, Kan. He also is a clinical associate professor of history and the philosophy of medicine and the interim chair of the department of bioethics at the University of Kansas Medical Center School of Medicine in Kansas City.
Because of the theological “flux,” the message differs “in time and place and faith communities. Even our translations of the biblical narratives…change in light of biblical scholarship and linguistics,” he said.
Yet, there may be aspects of the story that have not changed, based upon “what we understand that unchanging story to be.… Indeed, we do have a good bit of gospel narrative describing ‘Jesus and his love’ for God and people, especially people relatively unloved by other people,” Rosell added.
The core gospel message is “God’s saving love for fallen humanity and creation in the incarnation, cross and resurrection of Christ,” Gushee agrees. It starts with people, “eventually extending to the whole of God’sloved, broken world.”
Judson University Chancellor Jerry Cain stresses simplicity. The basic message can be boiled down to two four-word sentences based on a subject-verb-object pattern from John 3:16 — “God loved the world. God gave his Son,” Cain said.
The chancellor believes the message has to begin at that simple level, both for the individual believer and for the church.
“If I were a denomination czar, I would for 10 years hone in on those two phrases, and then flesh out that message … when talking to the public,” he said.
“God gave his Son” would be the message to work on at Christmas. The crucifixion and resurrection are evidences of God’s love and mercy, he added.
The corporate body would have to clarify the message, Cain believes. “I would have to sit down with the leadership of a denomination or of the church to develop a 10-word statement. … All communication, all teaching would come out of that,” he said.
How can Christians share the message?
After an individual, a congregation and even a denomination understand the message of Christ they must portray to their world, how do they share it?
Cain takes a lesson from business — why does a for-profit company, such as IBM or Papa John’s, exist?
“People know that Papa John’s exists to make a profit,” he explained. “The church must craft its message to say (to its audience): This is for your welfare.… We exist for your welfare. We exist for you.… The services we provide, the teachings we espouse are for you.”
The church and its leaders must communicate clearly and in understandable language, regardless of the platform they use. Be aware of using a “biblical” communication style, because Bible knowledge “among the general public has faded…and has also weakened considerably among churchgoers,” David Gushee, director of the Center for Theology and Public Life and a distinguished professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University, pointed out.
That weakness also could be used to advantage.
“Our presentation of the gospel must assume less background knowledge. We have to explain things that we would not have had to explain before,” he said. “But this presents a fresh opportunity, as well, because there is perhaps less underbrush, or bad theology, to clear out before we get to the presentation of the gospel.
”Could the body learn lessons from today’s communication giants, such as Madison Avenue, Google, politicians and others? Yes and no, according to experts.
Congregations should utilize every available delivery system, just as secular industry does, Cain said. “Redeem the media. It’s a neutral force, and we choose whether to use it for good or to use it for evil,” he explained. “Use it for good.… Use every aspect to tell the redeeming story.”
Christians should join the broader social conversation, partly because they have some power to influence it, Religion News Service Executive Director Debra Mason believes.“
“More important than the technology flavor of the day is the need for faith communities to be part of the social and cultural secular conversations across the globe. It is tempting to be myopic and to focus only on one message in one medium among one audience,” she said.
“Churches are challenged, instead, to engage the broader community wherever they are and to do so in ways that are constructive and civil.”
Civility, although “the least visible quality” today, is the one area in which churches “can model leadership and best practices,” she added.
“Churches are often afraid to engage secular culture because of the vitriol and argumentative tone of online communication, especially around religious issues. But Jesus’ message of love and redemption has a place even there,” Mason explained.
For Gushee, the Bible itself packs a lot of power. “I still believe in the power of God’s word—read, preached, sung, taught—to reach people with the gospel,” he said.
“I still see the power of skillful preaching — even verse-by-verse expository preaching … without a lot of bells and whistles. Leading people to see what the text said and what it now says to us … is still a fine art, but it does not require Madison Avenue’s help.”
The problem, he added, is that many “have lost confidence or interest in verbal communication of the gospel message. Evangelism has faded dramatically.”
Gushee pointed out his own experiences generally stem from his work as an advocate on specific issues such as torture and human rights. “When I say why I care about these issues, I go directly to the gospel as I understand it,” he said.
Shine the light
Living the gospel — “following Jesus in the ways of love” — is key, Rosell insisted.
“We know human examples of such not so much by what they preached or published or posted —though some do/did some of those things well, also — but by how they lived and loved,” he said.
“Mother Teresa comes immediately to mind. But there are many saints out there, less known to the multitudes, though in smaller circles known well for their good works and humility—for their Jesus-like love.”
Living the gospel, telling the story is a form of worship, Cain believes. In two New Testament passages, Jesus tells his disciples to act in secret. But the emphasis there is “to prevent the individual from getting the glory,” Cain said.
He points to Matthew 5:16. After Jesus points out people do not light a lamp and then cover it, he says: “In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”
Give God the glory
“God is to get the glory,” Cain said. “We must be actively giving God the glory.”
He believes the power of media lies in making sure God gets the glory for the church’s story. “That’s where I would call on Google or the Associated Press. It’s a form of worship to let those good works be seen by the public,” Cain emphasized.
Although he noted the American Red Cross is an effective agency, it illustrates how the church sometimes neglects its potential to tell its story, he said. In a disaster, the Red Cross handles the staging, but outside groups actually deal with recovery efforts.
Cain ventured that Christians, including Baptists, handle 80 percent of the work. Yet they do not tell about their involvement outside religious media circles, and the Red Cross gets the credit.
“Christians are not good at telling their story,” Cain said. But they need to be so that God—not the church, not believers—gets the glory.