Assumptions are powerful. What we communicate has everything to do with the assumptions we have about what is going on, who people are, and what people need. Assumptions usually grow and develop based on things being the same or constant for a period of time so that we begin to expect things will always be that way or at least are currently they way they were at some point in the past. Everything we communicate, in classes, sermons, small groups, etc comes through the filter of our assumptions. If we assume people are the same as they were twenty years ago (in their struggles, knowledge of scripture, and worldview) and don’t make adjustments to the way we communicate, don’t keep up with shifts in culture, or aren’t aware of changes in worldview then we assume that our communication is just as effective as it was five, ten, or more years ago. That may not be true. It is important that we evaluate how effectively our message is making the desired impact on the people we are communicating to.
I remember teaching a Bible class several years ago and referencing something about John the Baptist. I made my point and moved on. I didn’t realize until some time later that they weren’t following me at all because they didn’t really know who John the Baptist was, his purpose, or anything else really. I had failed to communicate because I had assumed they knew some things they didn’t know. Someone in their seat twenty years ago would have been with me but they weren’t. Things have changed and so we can’t assume people haven’t changed. The result is we have to adjust the way we communicate.
You see this in ministries that use events as their main way to minister. Maybe it is an event that used to go well but is now struggling or we watch once vibrant Bible classes slide or Sunday morning attendance take a nose dive. It may well be that our assumptions haven’t changed when they should have. It used to be that if you advertised an event or fellowship activity that people would come no matter what and you could fill the place up with very little effort. That is no longer the case. It is easy to assume that if you say we are having a big church wide event that people will just want to come and they will show up so we don’t tell them what to expect or what is happening at the gathering. People don’t come. They don’t come because our assumptions were not adequate to address the people we are trying to connect with, therefore, our communication missed the mark and the end result was not as effective as it could have been and less people are reached.
This is true in Bible class and preaching as well. Some of what was relevant 5-10+ years ago is still very relevant today but some isn’t. Our culture has undergone change at the most rapid pace the world has ever seen. Has our teaching caught up? Are we still reaching out in relevant ways? Or do we just continue to assume that if it worked in the past it will continue to work? Assumptions are powerful and if we aren’t willing to change them the effectiveness of our communication will suffer.
I want to share a few tips/questions to ask to make sure our assumptions are still accurate. My primary experience with all of this is more through teaching than it is through preaching. So maybe some of you guys who preach on a more regular basis can offer your insights on assumptions in preaching and how to gain effectiveness in that venue.
- Is what you are saying in your class/sermon actually making a relevant point? Some times I thought it was until I get in the middle of delivering it and then find out it wasn’t what I thought. It needed to be more relevant. I just hadn’t considered who I was teaching like I should have. Would the lesson have been relevant to someone? Sure. But what is the point if it isn’t relevant to the people who actually showed up?
- Are there people in the room that, because of their differences from me, as the communicator, are getting very little from what I have to say? Let’s face it, we all have the things we like to talk about, the scriptures we love, and the approaches that we like to take in communicating our message. But does that leave some people in the dust week in and week out? I am very logical in my approach and I have to be careful with that because I know some people don’t learn as well thinking linearly like I do. How am I going to teach them in the most effective way at least some of the time?
- Read and relate to stay relevant – know the culture through reading relevant literature and through having genuine relationships with people from various generations within the congregation. In doing so you will increase your relevance because you will be better connected with what the real issues are in the church and the world.
- Go to someone in your class/sermon audience and ask them what they heard you say in the sermon. See if they got the main point.
- Listen to yourself – if your class/sermon is recorded go back through it and see if you said what you were trying to say. What worked and what didn’t? I hate doing this and have only done this on a few occasions but it is time well spent in order to refine the communication process for future effectiveness.
What other things have helped you stay relevant in your ministry? What assumptions have you noticed block that process? What tips do you have to make our communication of the Gospel as effective as possible in a culture that is vastly different than the one many of us grew up in.