Communication Breakdown

4 06 2010

By Dan Merchant

While producing my documentary film Lord, Save Us From Your Followers I’ve spent the past few years trying to understand the so-called “Culture Wars” in our fine country. Is the conflict the genuine collision of opposing social and political viewpoints? Is all the yelling simply human nature as amplified through cable news hosts and talk radio personalities? Is the Us versus Them mentality that pervades America and it’s churches an inevitability in a fallen world? Maybe.

Or maybe the fundamental problem is so simple and obvious that we don’t want to believe it’s true.

As I traveled the country meeting with and interviewing all manner of folk I kept hearing the echo of one of my all-time favorite movie lines: “What we have here is failure to communicate.“ I can still hear Strother Martin’s menacing innuendo as he stands over Paul Newman in the classic Cool Hand Luke. Could it be that we have lost the ability or, perhaps, the will to communicate? And by “communicate”, I don’t mean simply spouting what I believe at someone else, but actually caring enough to find a way to articulate the message in a way “the other” receives it. Think of communication like a quarterback throwing the ball to his receiver: it requires timing, accuracy and sometimes touch. If the quarterback drills the ball off the side of the receiver’s helmet when he isn’t looking and then cries to the heavens, “Nice catch brick mitts!” I’d argue that the QB failed to “communicate” with the receiver.

I have to admit that I’d spent years perfecting a “debate and conquer” technique that bears a striking resemblance to the “brick mitts” approach. And if someone responded with, “Hey, I wasn’t looking, “ or “I’m standing two feet from you, put a little touch on the ball,” I had a cadre of Biblical trump cards at the ready: “The truth divides,” or “pearls before swine,” or “the world will despise us”. I had become more comfortable being right than emulating Christ and being obedient to his call on my life. There was not a lot of “dying to myself” going on in these encounters. Humility was absent and judging was quick and easy and, sometimes, kind of fun. I was amazed by my own ability to turn acquaintances into enemies over issues large and small. Yeah, I was in a downward spiral of moral superiority.

Which brings us back to the Lord, Save Us interviews. I wanted to know if others had been struggling like I had been. Was it even possible to communicate in a respectful, civil fashion on issues of faith and hot button political issues? To frame the potential conversation, I began each interview with five simple questions:

1) How do you think the world began?
2) Where do you think you’ll go when you die?

3) What is something that Christians are known for?

4) What is something that Jesus Christ is known for?

5) If Jesus returned today do you think he’d vote Republican or Democrat?

Then I stood back and listened. You would have been as amazed as I was. The willingness of people to engage floored me. When people believe you are willing to listen to them, and that you are not merely lying in wait to shout them down with your opinions, they will talk to you. Yes, and let me encourage you here, an actual conversation is possible. I spoke with young and old, meek and bold, obnoxious and gentle, intelligent and earnest, those who agreed with me and those who didn’t – and I have to tell you, I was transformed. Just being able to connect in a simple conversation seemed such a positive first step to closing this abyss that can separate us from others. How can we love our neighbors as ourselves – as Jesus inconveniently tells us to do – if we’re not even willing to talk with them, to attempt to understand who they are as fellow image bearers of God?

But here’s the punch line: many of those who had negative perceptions of Christians had positive perceptions of Jesus. Those who thought Christians are known for “warfare” and “hypocrisy” claimed Christ was best known for “healing the sick and loving the poor,” and “loving the least, those discarded by society”. Uh, what? Why do they understand these important things about Jesus and want to run from me, his representative, his spokesperson? “What we have here is failure to communicate.” If interacting with me discourages someone from considering Jesus and what God has for them, then I need to change how I’m communicating. If my desire to be right causes me to miss being used by God then I need to change how I am communicating. Yeah, I know, people walked away from the Sermon on the Mount, “following this messiah sounds hard, let’s go find another one,” but when I fail to communicate (live out the Gospels) I may be driving away the very people God brought into my path.