Neither Einstein Nor a Widget Salesman


I don’t mind putting effort into communicating well. I may not always be successful, but I will try. I’m stronger in some mediums, and I continue to work on those areas where I’m less effective. I don’t mind reading articles about how to use social media like a pro. I periodically work through online courses on writing effectively and understanding my audience. I’ll take advice from marketing experts and communications gurus. I work with a great one and I take her counsel very seriously.

I understand both sales and fundraising; I’ve done quite a bit of both over the last five years. I realize that my salary as a director of a non-profit depends on our ability to partner with supporters, just as my work as a church planter has for years now. Furthermore, the ability to tell our story well is essential to equipping others to unleash the missional imagination in their own lives.

So, I will continue to give careful consideration to how well I’m telling our story. I will try to be very aware not only of what we’re trying to say, but how others are actually hearing it.

But there’s a limit to how much I am willing to cater the message to the whims of the audience.

While there are certain aspects where it is helpful and imperative, I do not feel obligated to boil EVERYTHING down to a 30 second elevator pitch. We’re not selling widgets here. My calling, both in church planting and working with Missional Wisdom, is about reorienting lives and that takes more than 30 seconds. Always.

Some of what I do and teach is very simple. It can be communicated quickly and is easily understood (if not always easily implemented.) Our life in God involves our whole life, not just certain parts. Easy enough. Missional means that we are sent on a mission, therefore a missional orientation means that the faith of each disciple involves joining in God’s mission…wherever we are, and whatever we do. Got it (sorta). Alan Hirsch talks about the power of the phrase “Jesus is Lord.” It is simple and yet dense enough to be passed along easily. In fact, he compares it to a virus that is “sneezed.” Anybody can spread it, anybody can catch it. Some may find that analogy a little gross, but it makes the point.

But it isn’t all so simple. The statement “Jesus is Lord,” has a lot of implications, some of which look very different depending on your cultural situation. So, communicating that Jesus is Lord can be done simply and quickly. Unpacking that statement takes a while, doesn’t it? It isn’t always simple to sort through the ways that Christian culture itself may be working against living on mission with God. Examining (and helping others examine) the many ways that words like missional are used, and the implications of those usages, is complicated. There is no simple, universally applicable, detailed instruction on how people in each particular context live “missionally” – except in the most general terms.

And honestly, its okay that some stuff requires work to understand. The work leading to understanding is a large part of the understanding itself. Refusing to do that hard work may not have any immediate negative consequences. You may draw a large crowd, you may see transformation occur in people’s lives. That is fantastic. The impact of skipping out on the hard work of theological reflection will always catch up to you. They will undermine discipleship, rip apart communities and generally mess stuff up. I’ve seen it firsthand, I’ve heard the same stories repeatedly from church planters and church leaders…and I see it in consumer driven Christian subculture in our society.

Growing up and then later ministering in the Churches of Christ we had a saying that inadvertently applied to this issue. “Dunk ’em and chunk ’em,” refers to the sad reality that often our efforts in evangelism consisted of getting people to accept the sneezed part of “Jesus is Lord,” culminating in their baptism…but then they were mostly left to their own devices to figure out the “now what?” part. The sound-byte approach to evangelism and discipleship leaves us ill prepared and sometimes dangerously malformed.

So, I can’t really justify turning everything into a brief commercial length sales pitch. If you don’t quite get what I’m saying in a sound byte, that’s okay. I’ll try to rephrase. I’ll use a different metaphor. I will consider ways that I am causing noise in the communication. But what I’d like – what I believe must happen – is for us to continue this conversation tomorrow and the day after. I want to invite you to come and see what I’m talking about for yourself. If you don’t have time for that or if you disagree and have no desire to pursue it any further, that’s fine.

Giving careful consideration to how I communicate is certainly part of what it means to remain true to my own particular calling. So, I’m not just trying to be difficult or stubborn here. Igniting and unleashing people’s imagination is a central component to helping others reorient their lives around God’s mission. So I want to do that well, and I don’t want to let my ego hinder the process.

But in order to actually unleash people’s imaginations we have to resist the temptation to become “answer people” who tell others what to do. And we also need to avoid the inspirational but relatively meaningless sales pitch which gets people to sign up without knowing the implications. Both approaches cripple the imagination. Both do more damage than good in the long run.

As with nearly everything, this isn’t a cut and dried issue. We need to keep our communication simple, but never simplistic. The two are not always easy to distinguish from one another. What seems simple to one person may not be so to another. However, that which seems confusing or convoluted may not need simplification, but may actually require diligence and tenacity of pursuit. Einstein is often credited with saying that if you can’t explain something in simple terms you don’t really understand it. (I don’t know if he actually said that or not…remember, Abraham Lincoln said that you can’t trust everything you read on the internet.) But the thing is, Einstein may have been able to explain a concept in simple terms so that you could catch the gist, but he couldn’t teach you to be a serious physicist in one brief conversation. If he could we’d have had thousands upon thousands of Einsteins trained and unleashed during his lifetime. I get the gist of physics (by that I mean that I watch Big Bang Theory and Discovery Channel shows on string theory and the multiverse), but that hasn’t equipped me to contribute anything to those wanting to live like Einstein. If I believed that living like Einstein was my calling in life then there would be no way around putting some effort into the process.

I’ve had this post half-written for a couple months now. Yesterday I began reading my latest review copy book from IVP, Virtuous Minds: Intellectual Character Development. By page 40 I was hooked and looking forward to finally publishing this post and writing a review of the book (which I’ll do in the coming days.)

The book addresses what I believe to be a significant problem behind the demand for constant sound-byte communication and simplistic sales pitches. Our thinking is broken. Or, at the very least, bad thinking habits have caused mental atrophy. The good news is, we can correct the problem in our selves.

So now I need to think carefully about how I’m going to write that review…

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Posted on May 8, 2013, in evangelism, Missional, Missional Wisdom Foundation, theological reflection and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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