Smart folks are telling us that we are fast becoming a more visual culture, that auditory learning styles are fading out in favor of visual styles which communicate graphically the heart of complex ideas.
Those same smart folks (or perhaps just down the hall from them) also tell us that narrative thinking is superceding systemic thinking: or, that people prefer stories to digestible nuggets when it comes to learning new things.
At Cascade Hills, we face the challenge of communicating who we are and the way we do things to the new people joining us to serve Salem. We have some very big, complex ideas to communicate to people who may have never thought about church, faith, or mission before. Given the time constraints of our busy culture, the diversity of worldviews and variety of past experiences people bring to the table, how can we communicate to them why we're doing what we're doing? How can we best communicate what we think God is calling us to do and be? Where do we start the conversation?
Consider this challenge: a family moves to town, hasn't been to church in years and a few members of the family have only the vaguest recollection of their Sunday school experiences. They show up in response to some invitation to experience Sunday morning at Cascade Hills. They connect well enough to throw a "I like this; what's next?" flag in their own hearts and minds and they come up to one of our leaders to say as much.
What do we do with them? Do we hand them a brochure? Direct them to a web site? Invite them to a class? To watch a video?
Some of you are already smirking and saying, "no, those are all very modern approaches. You must enter into dialogue with them, discover who they are on their faith journey and then begin to walk with them."
And I say, absolutely! We must walk with them. But that still doesn't address the question of how. Talking off-the-cuff, asking questions, and inviting them to tell their story eventually requires us to tell our story, and more importantly, God's story. At some point too, they must hear our church's story. And part of that story is about who we are and where we're going, which brings us back to God's story.
God's story is really really big. So is the subject of all God is calling them to do and be. Am I the only one who struggles with how how much we share at that first conversation? What media do we use to tell that story? And very to-the-point, how we begin talking about God's story at that first coffee shop meeting requested by that new family who wants to connect?
We're on a rampage to simplify our conversations about this kind of stuff at Cascade Hills. We recently had an all-church meeting where I led people through a massively simplified graphical representation of our church. I intentionally made the pictures something that could easily be "napkinned" with someone at a coffee shop. You can see to the right the sort of pictures I'm talking about. The first image on the left represents the personal and individual aspect of our journey with Christ. The images to the right point toward how that journey is best undertaken in community of various levels of intimacy. The image on the bottom then represents the fact that both as individuals and as a community we are a sent people--that we have something to do. This is a launching point for talking about how our church lives out these various dimensions of the Christian life--again, all with a napkin close by.
We're working on how to do this with the gospel, too. When you sit down to talk with someone who really wants to know how to get in on God's story, can you do it on a napkin? Can you communicate it simply and clearly with story, Scripture, and stick people on a napkin? These people are working on "napkin gospel" things that I find interesting.
It's nice to know I'm not the only person who is struggling with the enormity and simplicity of the gospel. David Fitch recently sounded off in a long and very thoughtful article on his struggles with this very issue:
Can the gospel be too big? For some of us in the missional church movement, this question borders on heresy. We regularly caution that the gospel is not only about what Jesus can do for me. It is primarily about the transformation of our very way of life into God's mission for the world. We resist any temptation to turn the gospel into anything that might be too "user friendly." The mission of God (missio Dei), so we proclaim, must be all-encompassing, and we must become participants in it.
Yet for all the good in this approach, there may be another heresy beneath the surface. For in protecting the bigness of the gospel, we risk making the Christian life inaccessible to those outside of it. As a result, amid the current swell of appreciation for missio Dei theology in American churches, and the outcries against a gospel that has become too small, I find myself concerned about the ways we may unintentionally be making the gospel too big.
I am chasing the simplicity on the far side of complexity. I want to be someone who knows and lives the gospel so completely so as to have something comprehensible to say to someone who asks, "how can I get in on what God is doing?" And I want to be able to say it in such a way that does not embarrass or drown them, but rather intrigues them and invites them to begin that journey with enthusiasm.
Here's to the napkin's role in God's ongoing story!