Regardless of one’s description of the Gospel we can all agree that in order for it to invoke a response (refusal or embrace) it has to be first grasped, it has to be correctly understood. I often wonder if people respond negatively to the Gospel message because they misunderstand it. So, they don’t really reject the Gospel itself but our stinky presentation of it. Now, by this I don’t at all mean to imply that the Gospel once clearly understood inescapably receives a warm embrace. What I am saying and emphatically so, is that many a times I am afraid our communication of the Gospel does injustice to its message causing people to reject the wrong thing, leaving them with a bad taste for the real thing.
Now, probably your reaction to what you just read is not: “Never thought that how we communicate the message of the Gospel is just as important as the message itself!” So I am not going to bore you with the same old, same old stuff (though I think this still is an important aspect that is neglected to often). What I want to draw attention to is a side of communication that is mostly overlooked and as a result leads to a bad experience of the Gospel.
In recent years there has been an increased interest in rapid cognition, i.e. the workings of the unconscious mind. This could be due to the larger post-modern posture our society finds itself in reacting to the supremacy of the conscious mind so strongly advocated in the modern, enlightenment era. This relatively recent research has brought to our attention the fact that the unconscious mind is just as important if not even more important than the conscious mind. The evidence brought by extensive research makes a compelling case in this direction. One book that has popularized these findings – a must read – is Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink: the art of knowing without knowing.
Gladwell shows that our decisions come as a result of both the conscious and the unconscious mind, with the weight tilting toward the unconscious (the area Gladwell calls “access denied area”). To illustrate this one of the many examples he gives is that of a 7up product. When the company changed the label to a more yellow color leaving the beverage intact the public protested against the change in the beverage. They could swear it has been changed to a more lemon taste. It was so evident to them. Yet, the only change was in the label color. How come? Gladwell explains that the taste buds message sent to our brain is just one of the many sources our complex brain uses to make a judgment (in this case, how a beverage tastes). Another very important source (used in this example) is our vision. Our brain takes snap pictures of the reality it is faced with and then it searches through past experiences associated with this image stored in its “hard-drive”. So instead of going through the process of learning afresh, it first looks to see if it has already learned it before. Our usual association between the color yellow and lemon taste is so strong that our brain ignores the message it receives from the taste buds. It’s kind of saying: “Yeah, yeah I already know how this taste, I don’t need to pay attention to the taste buds stimulus again”. At a conscious level we might disagree with this, but the evidence the research brings is overwhelmingly compelling. Again, just read the book and you will see for yourself.
Now why is this relevant to our discussion of the Gospel presentation? I hope you have seen the connection already. The Gospel message has been in circulation for some time now (well, more than 2000 years to be more precise). Our society has been bombarded with this message in so many ways. People already have associations made in their mind for the Gospel and the various words associated with it. One such example is the word “Christian” usually associated with it. A recent book, Unchristian, shows this very powerfully and so gives us food for thought, it offers a great example of a kind of framework to address this particular issue. So, what can we do about all these natural associations people have made when it comes to the Gospel message?
We need to share the message thinking about the various associations people have made and try to either bypass them by being creative whenever possible or addressing them in a strait forward manner so as to disarm the automatic brain firings.
What I am saying is that being aware of this we (those who cherish the Gospel and its impactful message) need to be extremely careful of the ways we present it. Maybe we need to retire some overused words. Maybe we need to re-imagine the package. Maybe we need to tweak the concepts employed. I am writing this not to provide a solution (as that would defy the very point I am trying to make here) but to hopefully raise awareness out of which new energy is spent on better and more effective ways to convey the timely message of the Gospel. My solution might be different than yours, in your context, with your personality, within your relations etc. The Gospel in North America might look/sound different than the Gospel in Europe (or Romania, for that matter), in Asia, in Africa and other parts of the world. We might put collectively a lot of energy to come up with an effective presentation which once used it needs to be taken off the table and replaced by a new one. This is and has to be an ongoing process.
Each generation has this exciting responsibility to take the Gospel and communicate it well. It’s ok if people reject its message; it’s not ok if they reject the message not on its own merit but due to our bad presentation of it. Time will tell how well we fulfilled our task.