Jesus called us (Acts 1:8) to be his witnesses locally, regionally, and globally. To help us accomplish this mission, let’s think about communication and how it works. Like any act of communication, our witness has three components:
- The message itself.
- The messenger.
- The recipient of the message.
THE MESSAGE: The message itself is never delivered in a purely abstract way. We do our best to communicate God’s good news accurately, but it will always be filtered through both the messenger and the recipient. This doesn’t mean legitimate communication is impossible, but we need to think about the messenger and hearer to understand how the message could be filtered.
THE MESSENGER: What contributes to the credibility of the message? Classic communications theory suggests that the messenger must put together three elements. First is the messenger’s LOGOS. From the Greek word Logos we get “logic” and “logical”. The messenger must present a good argument that makes sense to the mind. An irrational argument loses credibility. Second is the messenger’s PATHOS. From this word we derive the words “empathy” and “sympathy.” To be credible, the message must touch the emotions. In particular, the messenger must care about what he or she is saying. The third component that lends credibility to the message itself is the messenger’s ETHOS. This is related to our word “ethics.” For the message to be considered valid, the messenger must be considered above reproach in his or her personal character. One’s character gives weight to one’s message.
To apply this to our witness to Latter-day Saints, what factors in the messenger contribute to mistrust of our message? One might be when we don’t know what we’re talking about. If we convey errors of fact regarding Mormonism, the logic of our message loses credibility. Another might be when we don’t appear to be compassionate and caring. If we don’t appear to care about Mormons as much as we care about being right or winning an argument, the pathos of our message comes into question. People might also mistrust our message when we don’t appear to be ethical. For example, last year a group of Christians gave away free boxes of Kleenex at an LDS women’s meeting. This came across as compassionate. The messengers gained credibility. But when the LDS women found out that each box contained a hidden gospel message, to many this felt like a “bait and switch” tactic. It seemed like an unethical trick, so much of the credibility gained by pathos was lost be a breach of ethos.
THE RECIPIENT: There will always be some degree of difference between what we say versus what another person hears. What factors affect that? One is the hearer’s frame of reference and expectations. Another has to do with the methods of communication that are normal in the hearer’s culture. Thus effective communicators try to find ways to frame the message so that it will actually be heard accurately by its recipients. The simplest example of this is when we speak another person’s language. I can explain the message to the people who live around me here in Utah with great clarity, but if I do it speaking Arabic, who will understand me?
But there’s more to it than just language. People’s understanding is colored by their world-view and their experiences. So we try to take that into account in how we communicate. The apostle Paul was the master of this. He used different starting points and different outlines when addressing the unchanging message to different audiences in the book of Acts. He framed the message differently for Jews in Pisidian Antioch versus rural pagans in Lystra versus sophisticated pagans in Athens.
My interest in understanding Mormon culture is so that I can learn how to more effectively communicate a vitally important message that might actually be heard by them through their cultural filters. For example, if I know that in LDS culture, opposition is seen as persecution, and persecution serves to validate the LDS identity and truth claims, then I will want to communicate in a way that doesn’t come across as persecution. Whether it is real persecution or not is the wrong question. The right question, to a wise communicator, is whether or not the recipient of the message filters it as persecution or not.
THE HOLY SPIRIT: Of course there is a fourth component in the communication of the gospel message. We have to take into account not only the message, the messenger, and the recipient, but also the work of the Holy Spirit in the process. But God works incarnationally. For example, Scripture comes to us through human authors using human grammar and language in the context of human culture. The result is both fully God’s Word, but also a human product. As another example, God revealed himself to us in the fullest sense through his Son. God still works through human beings. God did not paint the message of reconciliation in neon letters in the sky. He commissioned it to us. Thus there is no ideal, abstract, or perfect communication of the gospel. The Holy Spirit does not (usually) work independent of the human element. If I declared the gospel in Arabic to English speakers, the Holy Spirit could cause them to hear it in English – as on the day of Pentecost. But the Holy Spirit does not typically work this way. He uses human speakers in human language. That’s why it makes sense for us think about how good communication actually works, so we can communicate the timeless message of God’s grace in Jesus Christ to people who need to hear it.