The Communicational Barrier
Efforts to overcome the sixth barrier are, in many ways, the very core of the missionary task. This is the challenge of effectively communicating the gospel. It is possible to successfully overcome all of the first five barriers and yet make no real progress toward the fulfillment of the Great Commission if one does not actually communicate the gospel to those people who are in need of a Savior. As Romans 10:14 says, “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” In a way, efforts to overcome the other barriers are merely preparation for overcoming the “communicational barrier.”
Most missionaries, at least those from a conservative evangelical background, are clear on the priority of this barrier. Unfortunately, some oversimplify their approach to communicating the gospel to such an extent that they take short cuts at several crucial junctures. It is vitally important that the gospel be communicated in such a way that it is understandable to the hearers. In the parable of the sower, in Matthew 13:23, it is significant that “the one who received the seed that fell on good soil is the man who hears the word and understands it.” While it is true that, in order to hear and understand, the receptor of the message must have “ears to hear,” it is also true that the way in which the message is communicated plays a big part in determining the degree in which it will be accurately understood.
One element of the gospel that must be communicated clearly, but is sometimes bypassed, is the message of reconciliation. More so than a message about how to get to heaven, the gospel is a message about how to mend our broken relationship with our Heavenly Father. Another element that must be communicated clearly is the message of grace. In a very real way, a “gospel” that leaves room for trusting in good works is not an authentic gospel. A third element that must be communicated clearly is the message of repentance. According to biblical teaching, the prerequisite for receiving the gift of grace is a sincerely repentant heart. Certainly, there are also other aspects of the gospel that are not always communicated as well as they should be. However, these are representative of several areas in which some “fast-track” evangelistic methods often prove to be defective in overcoming the “communicational barrier.”
According to the Great Commission, the work of making disciples is made up not only of “baptizing them in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” but also of “teaching them to obey everything that Jesus has commanded us.” Considered from this perspective, efforts at overcoming the “communication barrier” extend beyond pre-conversion proclamation of the gospel (typically called “evangelism”) to post-conversion proclamation of the gospel (typically called “discipleship”). Although a part of this teaching involves conveying information from a “teacher” or “mentor” to a “disciple,” a major aspect of biblical discipleship is more behaviorally than cognitively oriented. As Carl George comments: “If we ever have to choose between how much Bible is understood or how much Bible is obeyed, my prejudice is in favor of obeyed truth.” (28)
A full-blown discussion of methods of evangelism and discipleship is beyond the scope of this series of posts. It will have to suffice here to observe that the task of post-conversion discipleship normally is best carried out in the context of a local church, with a personalized methodology, either one-on-one, or in small groups. It is also relevant to note here that, in order to make disciples, one must first model a lifestyle of discipleship. Thus, missionary ministries which focus on social justice and humanitarian aid have a valid and strategic role to play in communicating the fundamentals of Christian discipleship, provided they do not in any way preclude or preempt a priority emphasis on the clear verbal proclamation of the gospel.
If we are able to overcome these first six barriers, almost certainly, we will have at least made some disciples, and will be well on our way toward making a strategic impact for the advance of God’s kingdom. But the Great Commission will still not have been fulfilled. In order to do this, there is still one more barrier that must be overcome.
(to be continued…)
(28) Carl F. George with Warren Bird, The Coming Church Revolution: Empowering Leaders for the Future (Grand Rapids: Fleming H. Revell, 1994), 44.