by Mitchell Land
Whether we do village or urban evangelism, rural development or medical missions, our work flows out of a philosophy of communication.
Whether we do village or urban evangelism, rural development or medical missions, our work flows out of a philosophy of communication. Not that many of us ever sit down and write it out, or even study it. But it’s so powerful that it shapes all of our relationships and determines the success or failure of our work. That’s why we need a communications check-up. Let me tell you how I faced up to it in my own ministry.
After working for almost 10 years in Christian media in French West Africa, it occurred to me that I had become more concerned with bottom line production and target audiences as marketing opportunities than with effective communication of the gospel. In fact, I used to tell our new short-term volunteers, "Produce! That’s the key word in this organization. If what you’re doing doesn’t relate to production, then stop and get back on track." Armed with a program base design, production goals, and proven management by objective principles borrowed from American business, I whipped out detailed action plans to keep the media production wheels rolling.
There’s nothing wrong with running an organization according to proven management techniques and production principles. But suddenly it hit me that my philosophy of communication consisted mainly of packaging the message into a product and sending it through a channel to a receiver for a desired effect.
That’s good communications theory: source-channel/ message-receiver. That’s how our message is supposed to go out and be received. But it overlooks the complexity of how people communicate. It stresses the source and the product more than the receiver and the process.
This theory escapes from the classroom and influences missionaries. A relief worker expressed it this way:
First, you have to convince them they need a certain type of help. Then you have to convince them they want it. Then you have to convince them you’re here to do something for them, rather than taking something away. It takes a long time to get to that point. When you get there, then you can expect them to give serious consideration to your presentation of the gospel.
Although he was a sincere, caring missionary, his philosophy of communication was way off base. Look at the implications:
I am the source. I am the channel. I possess the superior physical and metaphysical messages. I, the source, will talk in the source’s way. The receiver will attend to the channel (me) and listen. The receiver will eventually give in and adopt the source’s message. If not, the source may have to shake the dust off his feet and move on in search of a receiver who will listen.
His approach does not sound like the best way to get to consider his message. But all too often this is what we do. Then, when nothing happens, we feel that we have completed our responsibility to disseminate the message. Responsibility for reception is left up to the receiver. It’s not our fault if he doesn’t receive our message.
This commonly held philosophy of communication essentially sees communication as transmission, whereby messages are transmitted and distributed for the control of people. We hope that our messages will influence receivers and change their attitudes and behaviors. This philosophy undergirds the objectives of typical Madison Avenue advertising agencies. We assume that information transfer is the heart of communication. We see our audiences as passive entities subject to behavior modification.
The classic decision-making model formulated by Everett Rogers (awareness-knowledge, persuasion, adoption-decision, implementation, and confirmation) acknowledges the receiver’s active role in the process, but fails to understand the receiver as a fellow participant in a dialogue. Christian communicators have embellished the Rogers model by emphasizing feedback and process, thus giving more attention to the receiver, but the concept of communication as transmission remains at the core. Or, to put it another way, our product reigns supreme.
For missionaries, the word receiver fails miserably. Our hosts are far more than simple receptacles into which we pour our particular package of gospel truth. They are far more than mere targets for our indiscriminate media arrows, however precious our arrows might be.
As sources of gospel truth, we are not supposed to be like savvy salespersons with glitzy gimmicks, peddling used cars through titillating channels to kindle awareness, then surprising our "customers" into buying our "product" at the appropriate moment on the decision-making axis. Our gospel is not an object we neatly wrap in attractive cellophane and send from source to receiver like so many oranges.
When we see our task primarily in terms of target audiences, market surveys, and bottom lines, we operate under the grossly simplistic source-message-receiver model cast in the mold of American commercialism. But, you ask, what is the alternative? According to what philosophy of communication can we communicate our radically different view of the world in vastly different contexts?
Drawing from Victor Turner’s extensive research in Kenya, James Carey has suggested that the ritual view of communication is much better. He links communication to communion, community, and commonness. We don’t merely send messages in space, we maintain society in time. Communication is not just the transfer of information, but the representation of shared meanings, i.e., ritual.
Given Carey’s source, it’s not surprising that communion, community, and communitas click in Africa. Indeed, former president Leopold Senghor of Senegal, a renowned scholar and poet, distinguishes the West African context from the European by stressing communion. Black Africans stress the group more the individual, solidarity more individual and activities, the communion of more their autonomy. He calls it a "community society." Individuals are not ignored or neglected, but realize that they can develop their potential in union with all others, including God, animals, trees, and so on.
No doubt, evangelicals think ritual means cold formalism, devoid of vitality and spontaneity, but "ritual" actually means the sharing of meaning through the practice of collective symbols. Upon reflection, we admit that the evangelical worship service is a ritual, including singing, prayers, the communion service, and baptism. We reinforce our faith through other rituals handed down to us: our marriage and funeral rituals. We practice other rituals, too, like the Sunday school class social, sports and games, and ice cream socials on the church lawn. All of these rituals communicate our Christian community and inculcate our personal and corporate values.
Perhaps if missionaries understood communication as ritual they would appreciate the more expressive forms of African worship rituals: all praying aloud, raising hands, and dancing. Rather than fear that these believers are being led astray into emotionalism, we should see how their ritual view of communication reinforces their Christian consciousness. The old tribal rituals are being replaced with Christian symbolic practices that bring solidarity and meaning. Rather than reject their practices, we should find out how to insure solid Christian teaching in the context of ritual.
One time when I was preaching at an evangelical church in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, the people began to sing their favorite chorus, "Jesus ever higher, ever higher, even higher; Satan ever lower, ever lower, ever lower." I wondered if too much responsibility for sin was being placed on Satan and not enough "in the individual’s gourd," to use an African cliche. I could have railed about this imbalance through a 30-minute sermon on James 1, but instead I suggested that we add another line to the chorus: "No, no, no to Satan; yes, yes, yes to Jesus." The people broke into applause and sang together for another five minutes. Through the ritual of singing I tried to restore some balance to the issue of sin and individual responsibility. Often, missionaries have to face and answer the question, Do I participate with the people to bring balance, or do I criticize their ways and sermonize?
In fact, the role of communion and community in the construction of meaning helps us to understand the very nature of culture itself. Culture is more than a system of beliefs, values, norms, artifacts, and traditions shared by a group of people. Culture is the very process by which meaning is shared and socially constructed. This implies interaction and negotiation among every element of society: individuals, groups, texts, institutions, and nations.
It’s something like making a patchwork quilt. The various colors and shapes of our interactions and experiences create (and are ever creating) the patterned whole. The pattern is not a rigid system, because the needlework never gets done; new meanings are created and added to the quilted whole. Old pieces are never entirely discarded, but their shapes and colors are redefined in terms of the ever-changing whole. Moreover, a single patch cannot be properly understood apart from the whole quilt.
Even as you read this, new patterns are being quilted into the African cultural and social fabric. However, not all new patterns fit. Placement must fit the indigenous structures of communication. For example, traditional religious ceremonies are rooted in indigenous culture. They give meaning to life and strengthen commonly held values. Now the gospel comes along. Missionary communicators have to learn how the gospel contributes to maintaining coherence, meaning, and community amid the radical changes taking place in Africa.
This is a tough, tricky assignment. How do we apply our biblical principles to the conflicts within the extended family structures, for example? How do we avoid upsetting the "traditional ecology" while we insist that biblical truth transcends specific cultures and traditions? Can we enrich the cultural heritage of our hosts without pushing for the abandonment of African traditions? Can we, as it were, help them to transform their traditions for the sake of their maintenance and preservation? How can the churches inspire such redemptive communitas among their members through ritual?
The final rite of passage from life to death offers us a great time to communicate the gospel through ritual. Traditional African religion centers on the spirit world; the living spend much time and resources to control the perceived powers of the dead. Many people believe that death is never an accident; they see it as the invoking of a curse. Family and friends are expected to show the proper respect and grief.
The proper Christian response is not abolishment of the death ritual, but its transformation. For example, Christians in Ivory Coast will rally around their members and turn out en masse for funerals. Their death ritual includes songs of praise to God and prayers for the grieving. Such Christian solidarity helps both the Christians and the community at large. It protects people from reprisals and offers alternative rituals that show Christian hope and preserve the essential of communitas. Onlookers see that fear can be replaced by love and hope.
The traditional African palaver is the quintessential symbol and site of ritual communication. How many times have missionaries wrung their hands in despair as their African brothers at church council meetings took hours to resolve what seemed to be a simple matter? African society is not simply an aggregate of individuals who act independently and make choices in isolation. Out of the seemingly time-wasting, disjointed palaver emerges a consensus that produces an answer for a specific situation. We, as it were, must be willing to sit under the palaver tree with our hosts and learn how they communicate. That includes learning from their icons, novels, films, books, funeral and marriage ceremonies, social institutions, and structures.
We all agree on the importance of learning the cultural context for effective communication of the gospel. We conduct field orientations, learn the language, and try to contextualize our preaching, teaching, writing, and broadcasting. But if we stick to the theory that communication is strictly transmission, we keep on producing religious "products" for "market" consumption. We become the privileged source and that subtly justifies keeping our receivers at arms length.
On the other hand, the view that communication is ritual helps us to learn how our hosts make sense out of the world in terms of their own culture. Their intricate webs of meaning should be understood and appreciated by those of us who would interject our own threads of truth reality to bring new colors and textures to their cultural fabric. We should approach other cultures as observers, learners, and guests, ever looking for shared meanings upon which to build, not as informed, truth-bearing, superior sources who would "save the heathen" by sending messages through channels for predetermined effects.
Jesus spoke to people in his day using appropriate cultural forms, e.g., parables, and looked for common interests to share new wine in new wineskins. He listened to the woman of Samaria expound her theology. He listened to the centurion explain the Roman army’s chain of command. He joined in weddings and funerals. People flocked to him, in part, because he knew how to identify with them in their own cultural terms. But Jesus did more than listen and participate. He denounced unbelief, hypocrisy, religious sham, legalism, worry, and traditionalism, and called for repentance and faith.
As Christian communicators, our universally and eternally true message is nonnegotiable. Christian truth is immutable culturally neutral, and ethnically free. But if we would be effective messengers of that truth, we must recognize our own cultural biases, lay them aside, and listen. Then we must communicate with, not to our hosts. Freed from superfluous cultural fat, and shared with people and cultures in terms that make sense, the gospel of Jesus Christ not only brings people to a redemptive knowledge of him, but also enriches their own ongoing cultural process. Let’s join our hosts as their guests under the palaver tree.
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