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
This 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
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.