As a father in my mid-40s with two great teenage sons, I still experience moments when talking to them is akin to speaking a foreign language. I do not understand how my crystal clear directive to, “Go clean your rooms” becomes interpreted as, “Relax and watch TV.” Or, “It’s time to mow the lawn” is somehow understood to mean, “Go toss the football around.” I wonder if Rosetta Stone® offers teen language learning software!
Communication is the complex process of transferring not just words, but thoughts, ideas, intentions, agendas, and aspirations from one
person to another. When verbal, and even nonverbal, communication is transmitted and received successfully, a connectedness occurs that binds us to one another. When communication is misunderstood, hindered, ignored, or impeded, frustration sets in.
There are various dynamics at work when we attempt to communicate effectively. Whether we recognize it or not, we all deal with selective hearing. Many times after a sermon someone thanks me for something I said when I never actually said it. In many of those instances, I believe the Holy Spirit is at work bringing insight and illumination. But often we tend to tend to hear what we want to hear. Communication is complicated.
WHEN COMMUNICATION GOES BADLY: EARLY EXPERIENCES AT MY LOCAL CHURCH
I am the longest serving pastor in the 68 year history of my current church by a wide margin. When I came to this church nearly 16 years ago, I was unaware that the church had a history of splits, and the current congregation was divided.
After months of attempting to get on the same page with one vocal and divisive leader, it became apparent that we did not speak the same language. His was a personal agenda of control, manipulation, and deceit. He was a smooth talker, charming, personable, endearing, and often spoke with flattering words. However, he would misconstrue my words to others behind my back.
This leader built a coalition of friends and supporters who seemed to support everything he did. He would drive away new people whom he felt did not “belong.” The church was on its way to yet another split. This leader, who had been the source of a split in his previous church, led a split in my current church two years into my ministry. He took roughly half the congregation with him to another church to repeat the vicious cycle. Those who remained were left to deal with the aftermath that took years to heal. Unfortunately, long-established, dysfunctional habits do not die easily in a church culture, and for years afterwards we dealt with the residual effects of an unhealthy ministry setting.
HOW CHANGE HAPPENED
The primary way we were able to change the culture of the church was to draw upon biblical instruction. It took hard work, persistence, and diligent teaching and preaching to accomplish this. First, I preached an 11-part sermon series on the “one another” statements in the New Testament (we will love, accept, forgive, serve, honor, encourage, etc. one another).
Second, we emphasized the principles and procedures that Jesus taught in Matthew 18:15-17 regarding what do to if someone sins against you.
In addition, we developed a zero tolerance for ungodly behavior such as gossip and lying. We made a commitment together to strive to be peacemakers (Matthew 5:9). We believe that how we communicate as followers of Jesus is an indication of the condition of our hearts. Jesus said in Luke 6:45, “For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” Two thirds of the entire chapter of James 3 is devoted to the power of the tongue. Ephesians 4:29 says, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” We adopted these texts as core value statements regarding how we will communicate.
Finally, we have discovered that healthy communication is linked to our prayer lives. In Colossians 4:6 the apostle Paul tells believers to, “Let your conversation be always full of grace . . . .” It is no coincidence that just four verses earlier in 4:2, Paul gives these instructions: “Devote yourselves to prayer . . . .” Dedication to prayer leads to edifying conversations.
During this very contentious period at the church, I was enrolled in a doctoral program and changed the direction of my research to prayer. Though this process, the congregation and I learned how to pray for discernment to learn to hear and speak words of grace and truth, rather than dissension and discord. This led me us to incorporate the ancient practice of Lectio Divina, a methodical and intentionally prayerful way to read Scripture. This emphasis became the seeds for the harvest of harmony we currently experience as a church.
CONTINUING IN HEALTHY COMMUNICATION
We are learning that communication is a gift from God, but like all the other divine gifts, it can be perverted. Being attentive to ways that communication is perverted, confronting unhealthy approaches, persevering through difficult times, and realizing that the Bible can guide how we are to communicate in God honoring ways, has allowed our church to become a healthier, missional community of believers.
In his sermon “The Good Steward” John Wesley said: “[God] has imparted to us that most excellent talent of speech . . . There is not a word of our tongue for which we are not accountable to Him.”
In the spirit of Wesley, I am convinced that believers must view holy communication as a means of grace. After all, God has communicated to humanity His divine intentions as preserved in Scripture. As ministers of reconciliation, we have been entrusted by God with the message of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18-19). The words we speak to others, whether in private or public, behind the pulpit or beyond the pews, online or in person, should draw others to the One who gives us the ability to communicate in the first place. Our desire, like Paul’s should be to speak “as though God were making His appeal through us” (2 Corinthians 5:20).
We all have agendas. A distinguishing mark of God’s holy people is to make God’s agenda our agenda, which is reflected in what we say and how we say it. “If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God” (1 Peter 4:11).
JOHN M. HANNA has been pastor of Springfield (Oregon) First Church of the Nazarene for more than 15 years and also serves as an adjunct professor at Nazarene Bible College.