PERHAPS you have heard or read one version of the old story of the two somewhat deaf men and their efforts to communicate: "My, it's windy today, isn't it?" said one to the other as they were traveling along. "Well, no, I think it's Thursday!" replied the other. "Well, so am I," agreed the first. "Let's stop and get something to drink!" These two men were talking, but unfortunately they were definitely not communicating.
The vital question that this little story must force upon our attention as ministers is: Are we merely talking or are we communicating? There is a fundamental difference; and it is the communication that is of utmost importance today. We cannot afford to talk on and on in repetitious circles, in platitudes, and in clichés. Rather, we must communicate the "glorious old gospel truths" in a language that is both meaningful and understandable to the modern man of the late twentieth century.
Fortunately, we have our Supreme Example to follow in this very area. Jesus was unquestionably a master of contemporary communication. The stories that He told were immediately recognizable and identifiable by the people to whom He spoke, because they dealt with things that they knew and understood. The sowing of grain, the catching of fish, the tending of sheep, laboring in the vineyard—these were all activities with which the people to whom Jesus spoke were very familiar.
What we have to remember is that the audience to which these parables of Jesus were directed was made up of peasants, fishermen, herdsmen, and humble tradesmen. For the most part, it was the "common people" who "heard him gladly" (Mark 12:37). These common people, who made up the majority of the population of this very tiny nation, lived under the heavy subjection of Roman conquerors. Their everyday lives, their living conditions, and their environment might be somewhat familiar to anyone who knows the Middle East of today, but how entirely foreign they are to a person who is accustomed to the sophistication of modern suburbia in America.
We are ready to admit the need to put ourselves in the position of the hearers that they may better understand the Biblical message. This is a fundamental principle of Biblical interpretation. Ellen G. 'White says:
Let us in imagination go back to that scene, and, as we sit with the disciples on the mountain side, enter into the thoughts and feelings that filled their hearts. Understanding what the words of Jesus meant to those who heard them, we may discern in them a new vividness and beauty, and may also gather for ourselves their deeper lessons.—Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing, p. 10.
This principle, if followed, will certainly help to bring about a better understanding of a given Biblical passage. But how is the minister to communicate the truth of its message to his congregation? A congregation that may be made up of students, businessmen, engineers, doctors, and professors. These are people who live and breathe in a generation that worships the many achievements of science and falls down at the throne that has been raised to the god of money in the business-dominated society that is part and parcel of our life.
To communicate gospel truth in such an age is a formidable task, and we must not be afraid to analyze archaic methods and expressions, and must not shirk from substituting new or different vehicles, if they will work more effectively. All we need to do is to think of what Jesus would say if He were speaking to this generation. His illustrations and parables would no doubt be taken from contemporary areas of interest to His hearers. R. A. Anderson, in his book The Shepherd-Evangelist, gives us just such an example:
We can well hear Him say to a group of mechanics, "Neither do men fill up the gasoline tank, and then permit a short circuit to run the battery down; for no battery that is dead can start an engine. To produce a spark, the battery must be charged. . . . To draw power from the throne of God, you yourselves must be charged by the Spirit of God."—Page 351.
It is a natural law of human nature that people will most enjoy hearing something with which they are familiar. To use illustrations that are readily grasped by the majority of the congregation because they are something out of their own experience is the sign of a speaker who will be appreciated. More than that, he will be understood.
Yet, how seldom it is that we hear modern parables to fit our new space-age society. If we readily admit the need to put ourselves back in the position of the hearers to better understand the original stories, should we not also be ready as ministers to interpret and translate them for our hearers today.
How can we be content to merely retell the ancient stories when we know that many people in a modern congregation cannot understand these stories to mean what they were intended to mean at the time they were given. To sponsor misunderstanding, or even to fail to bring understanding, is to fail to communicate. The minister today must remember that his hearers include the visitors in his congregation, his evangelistic audiences, a few members of the "rebellious—Pepsi generation," as well as his own well-orientated Biblical Adventists. Then he will recognize that effective communication of the truth of Biblical messages to all of these people may sometimes necessitate, for illustrative purposes, a bringing up to date of the vehicles and modes of expression. This could result in complete communication.
"Modern parables," "new modes of expression," and "bringing up to date," are phrases that should not be regarded askance or thought to be based on the supposition that the Bible is completely out of date and out of touch with this age. The Bible and its message, like its Author, is eternal. It will be meaningful forever. It is not the message that should, or needs to be changed; it is the method in which the message is expressed that can with profit occasionally be brought up to date.
The meaning of the parable about the good Samaritan, for example, is clear to all. It is an ageless message concerning the need for being a neighbor, for having love for everyone. The meaning becomes even clearer, however, as we place ourselves in the historical context and try to understand the hatred, the bitter, jealous hatred, that existed between the Jews and the Samaritans. We say "try," because it is impossible to fully appreciate the entire situation from our detached viewpoint in space and time. Would not this story regain some more of its significance and actually be better understood in certain parts of the world if it were occasionally told along the following lines.
There was once a certain businessman who was called upon to undertake an important and confidential trip for the company, from Birmingham to Montgomery. While he was on his journey his car was rapidly overtaken by another car and he was forced off the road at gunpoint. The robbers then proceeded to strip both his brief case and his wallet; in fact, they took everything of value, including the confidential documents. The man's attempts at resistance were rewarded by cruel blows, so that when the gangsters left, he was nearly dead.
Now, by coincidence, among the many cars that rushed by, one contained the minister of one of the largest churches in Birmingham. His was a rich and affluent congregation. He was well regarded and highly thought of. As he drove by the scene of the tragedy he, too, noticed the poor man, and realized what must have happened, but already his speed had carried him by. Also, he rationalized, it would be better for him not to become involved—probably some sort of underworld incident, or perhaps it might turn out to be too sordid an affair for his valuable public image, and so he speeded on his way.
A few more cars rushed by, preferring not to risk stopping or bother, and then there came another minister. He was not so well known, nor was his church so large, but he, too, was in a hurry. He did pull over to the side and glance at the situation; he even wished he could help, for his church was well recognized for its welfare work, but he was already overdue at a conference meeting—besides he could send an ambulance out from the next town—and so he too, hurried on.
But then a Negro truck driver came along to the place where the man was lying, and at the sight of him was touched with pity. He quickly stopped his truck, snatched his first-aid kit, and without a thought as to the consequences or the questions that people might ask him—a Negro, beside this badly beaten white man—he ran to help. He carefully bound up the man's wounds and carried him over to the truck and then drove to the nearest hospital. There he made arrangements to have the man treated and cared for. He even made financial arrangements and promised to stop in again on his return trip, to see what further help he could give.
Now, which of these three, do you think showed himself to be a neighbor to the businessman who fell among thieves?
Message Is Important
Admittedly, this story is just a figment of a Northerner's imagination. But is it not entirely possible that there are incidents taking place in the world today that would do even more to communicate effectively the all-important message of the good Samaritan story.
One would certainly want to remember that the good Samaritan story in the Bible, according to The Desire of Ages, was a true story that had actually taken place. However, this is just another reason why it makes a good example. Even though we recognize it as a true story, its message and its real truth are not lost in an adaptation of its setting. The same thing could be done with many Biblical stories, parables, and illustrations without any harm to the truth of the original story, and perhaps with a great deal more identification and understanding made possible to our modern congregations.
A plea for better communications does no violence to the content of the message. Not too many years ago it was necessary for North American Indians to send their messages by smoke signals. Today, if desired, man could instantaneously "communicate" a picture—of the Indian sending his message—to almost any place in the world. Methods of communication have changed dramatically in the past generation; so have the people who have understandably put their faith in the great new achievements of science. Therefore, since it is one of the primary tasks of the minister to be an effective communicator of God's Written Word to these people, he may find it helpful to keep up to date. It may necessitate new methods of what the Moody Institute of Science is rightly calling Space-Age Evangelism, but if it accomplishes the goal of reaching more people with a better understanding of the good news of salvation, then it will be worth while.
We can no longer be content to merely "talk." We must face up to the challenge that comes from every side today—that the church is failing to reach the people of the space age. We must constantly be in search of better methods and ways of fulfilling our duty to communicate the gospel message to the people of our century.