Communicating With Grace and Virtue
By Quentin Schultze
Communication is not just a skill for a few people and a handful of careers. Nearly everything we do is communicative in nature, including making friends, interviewing for jobs, watching videos and falling in love. Most importantly, communication equips us to grow relationally with God. We are designed to communicate like fish are created to swim. As I explain later, human communication is how we create shared understanding (or shared meaning) to accomplish many things.
The Bible tells the story of communication between God and humankind. It describes both faithful people who listen to God and unfaithful people who ignore or defy God. It portrays both wise communicators who listen before speaking and foolish ones who speak before listening. Scripture shows us that we are made in the image and likeness of a God who spoke the world into existence, became the Word made flesh, and shared his word with us through Scripture.
When our communication sours, our lives become miserable; we face conflicts, loneliness and sometimes despair. But when our communication is healthy, we enjoy friends, family and co-workers. We also have greater self-confidence to live faithfully. We naturally enjoy communicating with God, others and even ourselves. We experience real life.
To use a sports metaphor, communication is central to the game of life. Charging ahead in life without developing our communication abilities is like running onto a sports field without knowing how to play the game.
Communication is an essential skill for nearly every career. Organizations of all kinds seek employees who can listen carefully, speak well, write clearly and interact cross-culturally. Employers seek people who can communicate with co-workers, customers and clients. Media networks often employ skilled storytellers, not just technical producers.
The apostle Paul’s letters to churches highlight healthy communication. Early believers needed to learn how to encourage one another and solve disputes. They had to listen, teach, and testify in different settings. They had to learn what Paul calls “being all things to all people” (1 Cor. 9:22). He was the first great communication strategist in the church, adapting the gospel message to various audiences (“all people”).
Today, much of our communication requires us to understand and serve people from different cultures. Because of worldwide transportation and communication technologies, learning how to adapt our messages to different audiences is critically important.
Celebrated media theorist Marshall McLuhan called the international communication system a “global village.” It is a catchy metaphor. But it makes more sense to describe our technologically interconnected world as something like a “global city,” filled with “neighborhoods” that speak different languages, believe different things, and often defend their cultures against outside media influence.
In addition, the globalization of media does not necessarily make it easier for us to understand those whom we hear about through news and see in entertainment. Greater messaging does not automatically produce deeper understanding. Communication scholar James W. Carey says that “modern technology actually makes communication much more difficult. Rational agreement and democratic coherence become problematic when so little background is shared in common.”
Moreover, we dwell largely in “secular” societies, and we learn to think and speak as secular people regardless of our faith. Missionary-theologian Lesslie Newbigin observes that those who are raised in the church actually grow up “bilingual.” He says we Christians “use the mother tongue of the Church on Sundays, but for the rest of our lives we use the language imposed by the occupying power” (the wider culture). The field of communication studies is so vast that we can simply add the word “communication” to practically any human endeavor. More than likely, scholars have already been studying it. We can investigate mealtime communication, neighborhood communication, parenting communication, dating communication, friendship communication, coaching communication, and worship communication. In other words, learning how to communicate well applies to almost everything we do professionally and personally.
Communicating in Culture
How could one human ability—communication—become so essential to practically all we do? The simple answer is that God created us to relate to him and one another. We are social creatures designed to enjoy, love and serve one another. We interact through communication. A more complicated answer is that we are cultural creatures.
We are not as driven by DNA as other creatures. Our creaturely instincts do not dictate how we communicate. Instead, we use communication to create dynamic cultures—entire ways of life. We also use communication to modify our cultures and to pass them along from generation to generation and place to place. A culture includes a people’s values, practices, and beliefs, along with all physical things like dwellings, clothing, and technologies. As a whole, human culture includes everything on earth that would not be here apart from human activity: from selfies and video streaming to worship music and fast food. Without communication, we could not create and share culture. With communication, we together can change what we believe and do in life. We all are called to create culture and to participate in sharing culture, such as by sharing our beliefs and values with our children.
As we communicate, we create, maintain and change our ways of life. We work, play, and simply live together. In other words, our communication is always cultural.8 This is why learning another language includes learning another culture. When God created the world, he called human beings to take care of it. The book of Genesis uses the language of agriculture—cultivating in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 2:15).
We humans care for all kinds of culture, from movies to games and sports. As I write this, and as you read it, we together are cultivating a biblical understanding of communication. In our congregations, we cultivate a shared understanding of who we are as God’s people, using psalms, hymns, and other songs, as well as sermons and Bible studies.
In short, we are called to use communication to cultivate God-glorifying ways of life—and to thank God along the way both for the opportunity and for all positive results. Much of our everyday communication is pre-evangelistic—creating the kinds of Christlike relationships and cultures that attract nonbelievers. All of our communication can contribute to or detract from God’s kingdom on earth. Communication equips us to be agents of renewal in a broken world.
Excerpted from Communicating with Grace and Virtue by Quentin Schultze, ©2020. Used by permission of Baker Publishing BakerPublishingGroup.com.