Massage the Message
Romans 10.12 ... there is no
difference between Jews and Gentiles; God is the same Lord of all and
richly blesses all who call upon him.
The treasurer of a nearby
congregation has recently written to the members of his church.
There is a crisis, he says. The people are no longer giving enough money
to keep things going. He harks back to days when Christians paid their
way. No more cuts can be made, he writes, "... without doing massive damage to
our church's mission".
Mission is what Paul addresses in this section of his
letter to the Romans. On the surface, his remarks are unexceptionable.
Proclaiming the message is a primary concern of the Church.
The treasurer's emphasis reflects a long-held Christian tradition. As
Paul puts it, "How can the message be proclaimed if the messengers
are not sent out?"
But let's take a step backwards and review. Paul could assume that
everyone calls upon God as a matter of course. The vast majority in his
day perceived God (or the gods, for many) as constantly intervening in nature and
in the affairs of humanity. They thought that God held the key to health, wealth and happiness.
This was an unquestioned truth for everyone, an unexamined way of
perceiving the world. It was so much part of normality that it was
beyond awareness. They could not conceive of the world any other way.
Jesus thought along the same lines. He said, "... not one sparrow falls to
the ground without your father's consent" (Matthew 10.29). In other
words, even the tiniest animals are God's moment-by-moment concern.
is good news for those whose lives are controlled, as they see it, by
the divine. But our time is radically different. Neither Paul nor Jesus
would be likely to reach the same conclusions if they lived in the West
First, it is no longer the norm to call upon God. This is not merely willfulness
or sinfulness. Few now think that God micro-manages the world. It's starkly
obvious, for example, that millions of human beings - never mind a
sparrow or two - die each year in circumstances largely beyond human
control, and presumably beyond God's.
Second, many Christians - perhaps a majority - instinctively
recognise that they don't have the right to preach at other
people. And as they
travel more widely across the globe, many recognise that those
of other faiths (or none) don't want or need to be converted. The
"Jesus saves" message Paul writes about doesn't work as well as it used to.
It often fails completely.
However, the prospects are far from gloomy if we open ourselves to
new possibilities. For example, one thing is now known for sure about human nature.
It is that if people
want and need something they invariably respond positively when they see
it. So if people today don't welcome the traditional Christian message, it is
because they have good reason not to. It's not something they see a need
for. They don't differ from
us in this respect, nor we from them.
If the way so many people perceive the world has changed, then perhaps we
in turn need
not be bound by traditional "musts" and "shoulds"
from the past. It is possible to meet the challenge. But how? As
Christians rack their brains for an answer, a seldom-asked question is:
What should change? And a frequent response is, "They
Some thirty years ago a communications specialist called Marshal
McLuhan was briefly famous for saying, "The medium is the
message". In other words, a good message put across badly or using
the wrong medium will most likely fail. Politicians and advertisers
know this all-too-well. No matter how relevant party policies may be, if
they are poorly communicated nobody will listen. Similarly, even the
best, cheapest product will stay on the shelves
unless properly presented.
If McLuhan is correct, then Christian congregations under the whip
for more money might do better to examine themselves. If they are the
message, perhaps the message needs to change.