Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Word and the word

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Words are so last-millennium, dude.

Children of the digital age are growing up with a different kind of literacy, we are told. They learn to understand the world not through complete sentences, paragraphs and books, but through ever-changing sounds, images and micro-bursts of text delivered via their digital devices and social media of choice.

“Zits,” a comic strip that should be required reading for parents, captured the ambivalence of this new reality in a recent panel. Clueless Mom, who never quits trying to connect with her monosyllabic teen son, approaches him at the fridge:

“And how was your day?” Mom asks.

“Joyous,” son Jeremy replies while downloading an armful of snacks. “Tragic. Intense. Deadly boring. There was victory, defeat, suspense, pathos, gluttony, conflict and passion.”

“Wow,” says Mom, stunned by his sudden eloquence.

“And that was just the text messages,” Jeremy adds. LOL (that’s textspeak for “laugh out loud”).

Yes, the digital revolution seems to be moving many people toward non-print communication — or in the case of texters, forms of print that few readers of past generations would recognize.

It’s a place where much of the world already lives. Four billion people, nearly two-thirds of the world’s population, are oral learners, according to mission researchers. They communicate, learn, perceive reality and embrace core beliefs through orally expressed stories, narratives, songs and proverbs, not through books, magazines, newspapers and other forms of print communication traditionally preferred by literate cultures.

Some oral learners are non-literate because of lack of education. Many others, however, belong to the thousands of oral cultures of the globe. Even if they have a formal, written language (many don’t), it isn’t the way they prefer to interact with the world. Millions of Americans belong to that group.

Bible “storying” — accurately communicating the Word of God and the stories of the Bible to oral people through oral means — has revolutionized missions in recent years. It’s not really a new mission strategy, however. Rather, it’s the rediscovery of a very old one.

“Stories about Jesus and His teachings circulated widely by oral means for decades before they were written in the Gospels,” says Grant Lovejoy, director of Orality Strategies at the International Mission Board. “Those who believed what they heard were genuinely saved and they formed authentic Christian churches without the benefit of reading a copy of the New Testament. Churches were well-established around the Mediterranean basin before the books of the New Testament were written.”

The Israelites before them, likewise, learned the Word of God primarily through oral means: public reading, passing on stories within families from generation to generation. Yet “God was able to raise up a distinctive and holy people for His own, despite their very limited literacy and infrequent (or nonexistent) opportunity to read His written revelation,” Lovejoy observes. “We need creative strategies to communicate God’s message in non-print methods such as face-to-face witness, Bible storytelling, radio broadcasts and distribution of audio and video.”

None of this undermines the primacy of the written Word of God. It is alive and active, the source and fountainhead of our faith. The challenge in an oral world is communicating Bible truth to people who are unable or unwilling to read it.

Nor should we underestimate the power of words themselves in communicating the Gospel. Words don’t get a lot of respect in the age of multimedia, but they are the building blocks of stories, sermons, songs, drama — and of personal evangelism, the most powerful form of Christian witness. Yes, you have to “walk the talk.” Yes, actions speak louder than words. But words speak.

“Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words,” said St. Francis of Assisi. In a time of massive ignorance about the basics of the Gospel, even in churches, words are necessary.

The country preacher’s recipe for a good three-point sermon still works: “I tell ‘em what I’m gonna tell ‘em. Then I tell ‘em. Then I tell ‘em what I done told ‘em.”

So does Newsweek editor Jon Meacham’s advice to politicians, which also applies to anyone interested in leading others to follow Christ: “First, explain relentlessly. Second, tell us how what you are explaining will lead us to a better place, and describe that place. Assume nothing; repeat yourself until you are numb. Only then will the message begin to sink in.”
If your words match your walk, the message will find its mark. “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver” (Proverbs 25:11, KJV).

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Dangerous Winds

Sorry to rain on your spring parade, but the world faces some dangerous challenges that threaten already-fragile global stability.

Putting aside the overheated debate about climate change — whether it is caused by human activity, what can be done about it, etc. — more immediate threats demand attention. Here are a few:

AGE OF SCARCITY — After an “age of abundance” marked by rapid economic growth in the 1990s and the first decade of the new millennium, an “age of scarcity” is emerging, according to some forecasters. It will persist even if the major economies overcome the recent global downturn.

“The main problems of scarcity are water and food shortages, demographic change and state failure,” reports The Economist magazine. The competition for precious resources among shaky governments with even shakier economies could spark tensions among nations that once considered each other allies.

UNSEEN ATTACKERS — Who would have thought we’d miss the days of MAD (“Mutual Assured Destruction”), when a few superpowers kept the peace, more or less, by targeting each other with nuclear weapons they hoped never to use?

Today, untraceable enemies can bring down national computer networks via cyber-attack. If you can’t confirm the source of such attacks, you can’t retaliate — which increases the likelihood they will occur.

The possibility of attacks by shadowy groups with far more devastating weapons is no less real.

“As I view the threat, we have a perfect storm,” warned former U.S. Senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) in a recent interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Nunn, a longtime defense expert, leads a group working to decrease the global threat of weapons of mass destruction.

“We have weapons of mass destruction-type material spread in at least 40 countries around the globe,” Nunn said. “We have technological know-how that is spread very wide now. It was formerly thought that only a state could make a bomb. Nobody that’s informed on the subject believes that anymore. We’ve got an increased number of terrorists who would not hesitate to use a nuclear weapon if they were able to get one.”

The use of even a small weapon of mass destruction in a major urban center would have a “devastating impact” not only on the victims of the attack itself but on the global economic system, Nunn warned. “You’d have people dumping out of cities all over the world like nothing we’ve ever seen.”

The challenges governments increasingly face “will be much less predictable than those associated with old great-power rivalries,” says The Economist. Rather, they confront “a new kind of threat: the sort that comes not from other states but [from] networks of states and non-state actors, or from the unintended consequences of global flows of finance, technology and so on.”

DECLINE OF FREEDOM — For the fourth year in a row, more countries experienced declines in political freedom than advances, according to “Freedom in the World 2010,” the latest annual report from the watchdog organization Freedom House. Eighty-nine countries, home to about half of the world’s people, are classified as “free.” The rest, even those nations that hold democratic elections, govern their populations with varying levels of repression.

A report released in December by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that nearly seven of every 10 people live in countries that significantly restrict religious faith and practice. Of 198 nations studied, 75 put official limits on religious evangelization.

If you think such forces are beyond the ability of ordinary Christians to influence, think again. Evangelical groups — including Baptist Global Response, Southern Baptists’ international relief and development arm — are doing some of the most effective work to end human suffering and promote sustainable development, even as they share the love of Jesus.

Followers of Christ also are defending the rights of people in many places to basic human freedoms, including the freedom to worship as they please. The Gospel itself, once it spreads and takes root, has shown its power to transform whole societies as it transforms hearts.

Finally, believers possess the most powerful weapon of all: prayer. You can pray for peace. And where there is no peace, you can pray that God will use turmoil to turn the eyes of searching humanity toward Him.