It’s not just what you say…

The underground train system in London can be an uncomfortable place to be at the best of times. I don’t want to repeat what we’ve heard from many social commentators who see in it a vibrant metaphor for the crowded-yet-lonely human life in the 21st century West (I hope they do anyway). Neither do I want to waste time going over the obvious annoyances with rush hours and claustrophobia (as one guy I know recently said, “Last time I was this close to a young woman I was marrying her!”), not to mention the general woes of transport for London, with which many of us are familiar.

So suffice it to say that it was a hot sticky day and rush hour when my girlfriend and I were ramming onto the Jubilee line in the middle of London just a few days ago – not a pretty sight or experience – and we were already quite feeling the stress of it all. “Phwoar,” I hear you say, “that sounds bad. The last thing you would have needed in that situation would be, oh I don’t know, a large Jamaican man with a very loud voice speaking to EVERYONE on the carriage about how Jamaica needed to be left alone by the capitalist West and needed to get the CIA, FBI, MI5 and MI6 out of their country. Just lucky that kind of thing doesn’t usually happen.”

Well, it’s funny you should say that. Because we were so blessed on this occasion to be granted an audience with such a man – we hadn’t even asked or paid for it, weren’t we lucky! – as well as being crammed into this train with a lot of other already aggravated people.

That’s right, for some reason a man with an extremely penetrating voice and an accent which under other circumstances I would have been pleasantly amused by, was I think successfully projecting his voice loudly down the entire carriage in both directions telling us all to telephone the Queen when we got home (I tell no lie) and tell her to withdraw British and American and in short Western capitalist influence from Jamaica. He had a real thing against plasma TVs for some reason. He seemed to harp on to a couple of other things at various points, but wasn’t very consistent. Once he said “We” (meaning just him) “are inviting you to join us” (him) “Muslims…” but said nothing more about that! Another time he said he wasn’t getting at nobody in the carriage but most of the time he was getting at everyone for doing nothing about his problem. Another time he said we’ve got to stand up for the truth. It was a bit confusing.

But, excuse me for analysing his argument. Most people in the carriage, you may not be surprised to hear, were DEFINITELY getting even more aggravated by the presence of this man and his obtrusive voice. Either that or they had their iPods on. A number of people told him to be quiet but of course he didn’t listen. So, most people weren’t bothering to analyse his argument, they just wanted him to get off!

Now, I may be a bit odd but I personally quite enjoyed the moment because I like to try to remain above things in my perspective and I knew that everyone was just going to get off that train and go about their days anyways, so what harm was this actually going to do? He clearly wasn’t dangerous in any physical way. Just annoying. But annoying if you just wanted your peace and quiet on your journey home. Whereas if you change your perspective to take in people shouting on a train about some random thing as normal, it can be quite entertaining.

Well, this was my oddball experience. But I realise that I may be a bit unusual in this respect, so seeing the reactions of everyone else around me, it stirred some thoughts in me which I felt needed to be shared. Here was a case in point for what I was thinking, but it’s not the only one I’ve witnessed. There have been many.

Here’s the thing. If you want to say anything to anyone, it’s not just what you say. It’s HOW you say it.

May I repeat: It’s not just about WHAT you’re trying to convey to your audience. What they hear will come as much by the MEANS of communication as by the subject of the communication.

Without wanting to go too deep into all the various realms this applies in (which is, every realm of communication, including emotional communication and so on), in this case it is hopefully obvious how we can apply the principle.

You see, the man may have had a point. Capitalism and overt Western influence in Jamaica may not be appropriate. (Though some of the things he associated with Western culture were nothing to do with capitalism or anything else – he said “We don’t want you with your drugs and your guns.” Someone should have told him that they have plenty of drugs and guns in Cuba, not so far away. Communism. Darn I wish I’d said that to him.)

I digress. For our purposes: the guy might have had a point. He might have been worth listening to. Except it was like he WANTED to make himself difficult to listen to. Except he clearly didn’t realise.

And this is my worry. Many people today feel they have something to communicate, and indeed many do. (Some feel they do, but actually don’t.) But only a vague handful of them, it seems, really have the means and the know-how to communicate it WELL. Others are much less gifted in communication though they may have a great message, and still others have absolutely no idea that they are about to shoot themselves in the foot and go ahead shouting their message to a bunch of people that are already hot and tired and don’t tend to want to listen to that kind of thing in a tight and unfriendly environment like the tube at rush hour…for example.

My biggest worry is when it comes to Christians, who are meant to be the most creatively gifted in the world because they know they are children of the Creator and have His DNA in them through the new birth, yet we still try and stick to out-of-date means of communication because it’s the way it has always been done. Worse, we can then just attach a ‘spiritual’ explanation to it, that we did what we had to do but because the hearers were hard of heart, they didn’t like it.

I know, there are plenty of hard hearts still out there. But plainly and simply, surely there is more that we can do, being as I say children of the Creator, than just preach on street corners or hand out tracts. Both of these still work for some people, but dare I suggest that we’re probably only still reaching a fraction of the people we could. And it’s nothing to do with everyone else’s hardness; it’s to do with our self-imposed restrictions.

Some people are more geared towards debating. So, they like to do that. Let’s get alongside them! I know a passionate Christian who said that when he was an atheist, the debates and arguments really did help! We have it from his mouth!

Others like to just see that something works. So they need to be shown the practical love of God in helping others and seeing His power and love at work.

Some people are quite relational and establish every philosophy in their lives through the depth of their relationships. So let’s make friends and get alongside people in this way too!

I could go on. I guess my point is this: we have THE GREATEST MESSAGE in the world – the full Gospel of Jesus involving not just His saving grace but also His demonstration of love and power through the Holy Spirit present now. Yet we are reaching just a handful of people – certainly in England – at the moment. Surely we can do more to bring it to others who like to be communicated to in different ways – in creative ways. In friendly ways. In ways appropriate to their context and understanding.

This is just a suggestion and an appeal for creative thinking, which is never a bad thing. The main thing is the main thing: if you’ve got something to communicate, don’t just think about what it is, but think about HOW you want to communicate it. Who are your audience, and what will they respond to? It has gotta be said: kids at a church-run after school club will respond much more to teaching about Jesus – or about anything really – if there is some sugar and games involved!

If you’ve already known this principle, I hope it reinforces it and encourages it. If you’ve wondered something like this but aren’t sure how to address it more because you’re perhaps just more practically-minded, it just requires some experimentation and perhaps consultation. If you had no idea – I hope this helps you!

And be assured. No amount of good communication can bolster a flimsy and boring message. If what you’ve got is worth saying but you’re not sure how, just have a go and work at it. I’d rather have a great message put over in a slightly shaky way any day, than a mind-blowing presentation of a mind-numbing subject!

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