Probably any teacher of college freshmen is familiar with the student who turns up on registration day with a strong emotional urge to be a professional man but with complete disdain for the step-by-step process for reaching his goal. He may be an aspiring scientist who wants to remake the world—but can’t stand math; or a would-be physician with a burden to serve humanity—as long as he can stay away from chemistry; or a ministerial student who yearns to preach—if only he can escape Greek.

The human urge to bypass the process by which things happen and believe that “wishing will make it so” is a comfortable rationalization which helps us avoid work. We all indulge it at times. But when a Christian minister asserts, in effect, “Our purposes are so important and lofty that we will not be distracted from them by examination of the means by which we reach them,” the evasion may become dangerous. I am talking about the minister’s knowledge of communication process.

The study of communication theory as an integrated body of information constituting an area of scholarship in its own right is a relatively modern development. Given recent impetus by the growth of huge nationalistic propaganda organizations and astronomical advertising budgets, study of the communication process has attracted increasing attention from a variety of disciplines. Modern communication theory gathers together from relevant traditional areas of scholarship (such as sociology, linguistics, psychology, semantics, literature, anthropology, logic, and rhetoric) all available information about the transmission of ideas, and applies scientific information-gathering techniques to the study of the process. The classic definition of communication study as “the study of who says what to whom with what effect” provides a good outline.

There are indications that some ministers and theologians have taken fright that study of the communication process may turn out to be an attack on preaching. We have recently read rather pointed ministerial criticism of those who apply the principles of communication theory to the spread of the Gospel. Though variously expressed, most of the misgivings can probably be grouped under three general headings.

Believing, as he does, that participation in the revelation of Jesus Christ is the most important work in which man can engage, the minister owes it to himself to find out whether organized study of the communication process represents a potential threat or a possible source of increased efficiency in his work of spreading the Gospel. Let us examine the charges one at a time.

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Problem 1: Communication theorists are technicians concerned only with method, with no regard for the truth or permanent importance of the matter conveyed. There is some basis for this assertion. The electronics expert who installs and operates the public address system for the evangelist is a technician. The effectiveness of his amplifier does not depend upon the truth or error of the speaker’s words. It depends upon the skill with which he designs his circuitry.

The student of communication theory is concerned chiefly with process—laws which govern it and effects which it can produce. But, unlike the job of the electronic technician, his work, if it is to produce results, cannot be separated from the source of the ideas. The preacher cannot say to the theorist, as he does to his public address operator, “I have now finished producing this idea—you transmit it to the audience.” For the very framing of the idea, the symbols chosen to express it, the time and place of its presentation, constitute the “techniques” to be considered. The “technique” and the “message” cannot be separated, which means that the minister must be his own “technician”—and the better-informed technician he is the more effective will be his message.

Problem 2: Theories of persuasion imply manipulation of the audience in violation of the freedom of the human will. The notion that the Nazi and Communist propaganda machines and the productions of Madison Avenue represent a magical new art which threatens all our traditional values makes good scare material, but it does not square with the facts. The basic devices of modern propaganda and advertising were well described by Aristotle. They are not the product of the black wizardry of electronics and neo-Freudian psychology. To equate the study of communication with some particular set of non-rational appeals used by an advertising agency is inaccurate and unfair.

If there is one observation which more frequently than any other causes dismay among students of communication, it is the passive receptivity of the mass audience. There are parallel areas of apathy and suggestibility in the Christian church. The ruggedly individualistic Christian of apostolic or Reformation times would seem strangely out of place in many spoon-fed twentieth-century congregations. One of the most urgent messages of today’s Church is that the significance of the individual lies in his personal accountability to God. The minister who knows how propaganda techniques short-circuit the human rational processes will most stoutly assert the importance of this personal accountability. He knows the hazards against which to warn his congregation and the non-rational shortcuts against which to guard his own sermons.

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Problem 3: Application of communication theory to the work of the minister minimizes the direct work of God’s Spirit upon the human mind and elevates the human instrument. It is not a new charge that scientific examination of a process takes God out of it. Christian physicists and biologists have lived with this objection for years and have successfully contended that orderly description of the forces operating upon a celestial body or of the minute structures of the human brain need not eliminate belief in the upholding power of God. The fact that the physical finger of Deity does not appear as a value in an equation or as a location in the cortex merely teaches us that God operates his universe more efficiently and less primitively than we might have supposed. We learn that the Spirit that moved on the waters of Chaos operates lawfully.

The student of communication gathers together what has been learned about the process by which ideas move from one mind to another. He probes the pressures causing them to be accepted, rejected, or modified. He observes whether they are applied or not applied to conduct.

At what points does the Spirit enter the communication process? Certainly the preacher’s mind must be open to the Spirit’s stimulation through the written Word. Certainly the minister is alert for pertinent lessons in the circumstances God brings to him. Certainly he plans the ritual of his service and the sonorities of his organ and choir to allow the worshiper the peace and leisure for introspection—for the still, small Voice to be heard through the din of the huckster’s shouts echoing in his mind.

As in the process of the germination of a seed or the birth of a child, there is no spot to which we may point and say, “Just there is the finger of God.” Yet as in the planting of the seed or the rearing of the child, the more we know of natural law—the divinely ordained order of the universe—the more effectively we can work within its structure.

It is precisely because he believes that language and the human mind are both products of God’s creation and because he believes that God has deliberately chosen to communicate with men through the medium of human language that the minister is rewarded by study of the communication process. God could employ angels, direct vision, or other media at which man cannot even guess. But, as is obvious from the Gospel commission, the channel of human language as spoken by human beings is his chosen medium for conveying his message to mankind. Scripture records that he chose, in each age, the most effective individual transmitter for his message. Moses, Samuel, and Jeremiah were set apart from childhood; Paul was selected as a “chosen vessel” while still a rebel.

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Why were these men chosen? They could scarcely have been selected for an orotund delivery, an impressive vocabulary, or a sincere presence. There must have been divine recognition of their total potential as communicators of a message. It is this total impact that concerns the student of communication.

If there is a single lesson that the study of communication would stress above all others for the minister, it would probably be attention to this “complete impact.” This means recognizing that a worship situation includes many “messages.” There are many of the communication channels which supplement or negate the words of the preacher. Communication research also suggests answers to a wide range of questions such as: How does the listener’s concept of himself affect the way he receives the minister’s message? Should the minister present both sides of a disputed point, or only his own convictions? How does audience perception of the minister affect its willingness to receive his message? Can the minister capitalize on the group identifications of his church members? When is fear not an effective stimulus to action? What happens in the mind of the listener when a new idea conflicts with a previously accepted idea? How do shifts in word meaning warp the minister’s message?

Far from attacking the study of the communication process as a threat to his calling, the minister should find in it a new opportunity to reexamine the worship techniques carried over from a previous generation. He should find incentive for rigorous self-examination. He should look to research findings as incentive to help him present the everlasting Gospel as fresh good news. He should be willing to compare his audience’s reaction to that of the audience of the Teacher of whom it is reported, “the common people heard him gladly.”


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