How a theory of communication can help make disciples

Since our arrival in Cameroon in 2014, there have been a handful of people from our village that have attended church semi-regularly. The services are conducted in French and this group of people speaks almost exclusively Kwakum. These neighbors put on their nicest clothes, arrive at church, and…sleep through the services. This is very regrettable because our pastor just finished a very long series on the book of Romans where he clearly presented the Gospel of grace.

When I asked my Kwakum-speaking friends what they understood at church, I would often get answers like, “I learned that we need to be good and not bad so God will love us.” *sigh*

Recently our pastor has started doing a very elementary Bible-overview series starting in the book of Genesis. Not only is he starting in Genesis, but he is having people from our literacy classes read the Kwakum passages that we have already translated. Those of us that can read in Kwakum sit by those who are still learning and help them read and also translate the big ideas of what he is saying.

The result has been remarkable. Older women who have never gone to school are now answering the pastor’s questions. They can respond to questions about the origin of sin and suffering as well as the actions of God towards men. The once sleepy congregation has woken up and it is now almost a bit difficult to get a word in. Not only that, but women are coming to us and buying their own copies of the creation account in Kwakum to study at home.

What is happening in our little church? A book that I just started reading has helped me respond to that question. This book claims that in communication, the benefits of the information received by the listener need to be greater than the effort it takes to process what is being said. Let’s dive into what this means.

Relevance Theory

Traduire la Bible : Comment s’y prendre ? by H. Hill, Gutt, Unger, Floyd, and M. Hill applies a theory of communication called Relevance Theory to the practice of Bible translation. I find that studying this theory also has helpful implications for teaching and discipleship and really just life in general. The book claims that goal of communication is to make a particular message relevant to the hearer. How then does one know when a message is relevant?

(Below I sum up sections of the book in English in italics with the page number for reference).

A message is relevant when it is it is tied to our existing thoughts and alters them in one way or another (p. 21). The more our thoughts are altered, the more relevant the message is to the hearer. Our existing perspectives can be altered in many ways, which we see listed below.

Reinforcement

Reinforcement is when the speaker states something that confirms in the mind of the listener that their existing assumption is correct (p. 22).

For instance, when teaching Genesis 3 our pastor said, “How many women here understand the pain of childbirth? And how many men and women here feel the pain of the curse that God put on the ground every day that you work in the fields?” The small congregation moaned and simultaneously offered comments along the lines of “seriously,” “we really suffer,” and so on.

At this point, the pastor was telling them nothing new, but was instead reinforcing something that they feel every day. There was no sleeping through this part of the message because the information they were receiving was relevant to their lives.  

Elimination

Elimination is when the message contains a new idea that has more weight than an existing thought and therefore replaces it (p. 23).

For example, someone the other day said to me that they believed that sex was something that was instituted after the Fall and was therefore something dirty and shameful. I then told them that, no, it was something that God gave man and woman before the Fall and therefore it is something that is good, although able to be perverted. This person’s perspective was changed before my eyes as they came to realize that sex between a man and his wife is nothing to be ashamed of.

The message that she received started where she was at and gave her information that was beneficial to her because it changed something that needed to be changed in her thinking.

New Implications

“New implications” refers to information that is combined with an existing assumption in order to derive a new, useful implication in the mind of the hearer (p. 24).

For instance, the Kwakum believe in a Creator God. It depends on the person, but I have talked to some who believe that God is “just like them” with a body and in need to things like oxygen and food in order to survive. When I’ve explained to them that God is a spirit and is not in need of anything (elimination), they’ve been amazed. Then, I ask them, “So then, if God doesn’t need food, or water, or flowers in order to survive and be happy, why did he create all these things?” *Silence* “He created them for you and for me out of love,” I explain. The lightbulb goes on and it is as if the hearts of those I am speaking with are flooded with a reality of the love of God for them personally for the first time. The Kwakum hearer had an assumption in their minds (God is a creator) but what they had not yet realized was that he created this wonderful world out of love for people like them.

Another example comes from the story of Cain and Abel. The particular hearers that I was speaking with understood that Abel was God’s creation and made in his image. They understood that Abel belonged to God. Then, I asked them, “How then did God feel when Cain destroyed something that was his?” “Angry,” they replied. “And how then does God feel when you swear at one another and beat one another in the streets?” *Silence…squirming* They finally replied, “Angry.” They held the belief that Abel belonged to God but had not yet realized that the person they beat in the street also belongs to God. This new implication taught the that the Lord was angry with them as he was angry with Cain.

In a word, if people are putting out the effort to listen to something (especially while sitting on uncomfortable benches while being bitten by ants), they want it to be worth their while.

The intellectual benefits in listening to something need to be greater than the effort required to obtain these benefits (p. 28).

I believe that when Romans was preached in church in French, the people had to put out great effort in order to understand. Why? Because French isn’t their mother tongue and also because Romans is chalk full of themes that rely on the rest of the Bible in order to be understood (Adam as the representative of humanity, death of Christ, etc). The processing effort was so great that people just gave up and fell asleep. Genesis, on the other hand, starts with something that the people can observe (creation) and gives additional information that either reinforces, eliminates, or draws out new implications to already existing assumptions in their minds. Listeners find the message relevant and thus do not mind the effort it takes to process what is being said.

How can relevance theory help make disciples?

When seeking to apply relevance theory to discipleship, consider the statement above: The intellectual benefits in listening to something need to be greater than the effort required to obtain these benefits (p. 28). This means that in discipleship (as in translation) the benefit we communicate needs to exceed the work it costs to understand it.

In other words, we (as disciplers) need to do the work to make ourselves understood so that the listeners do not have work hard to understand.

Evangelist Ray Comfort gives the following analogy in regards to evangelism, which illustrates the need to apply relevance theory:

Two men are seated in a plane. A stewardess gives the first man a parachute and instructs him to put it on as it will improve his flight.

Not understanding how a parachute could possibly improve his flight, the first passenger is a little skeptical. Finally he decides to see if the claim is true. After strapping on the parachute, he notices its burdensome weight, and he has difficulty sitting upright. Consoling himself with the promise of a better flight, our first passenger decides to give it a little time.

Because he’s the only one wearing a parachute, some of the other passengers begin smirking at him, which only adds to his humiliation. Unable to stand it any longer, our friend slumps in his seat, unstraps the parachute, and throws it to the floor. Disillusionment and bitterness fill his heart because, as far as he is concerned, he was told a lie.

Another stewardess gives the second man a parachute, but listen to her instructions. She tells him to put it on because at any moment he will be making an emergency exit out of the plane at 25,000 feet.

Our second passenger gratefully straps the parachute on. He doesn’t notice its weight upon his shoulders or that he can’t sit upright. His mind is consumed with the thought of what would happen to him if he jumped without it. When other passengers laugh at him, he thinks, “You won’t be laughing when you’re falling to the ground!”

The first passenger in this story abandons his parachute because he doesn’t understand its relevance. The costs of wearing the parachute (physical burden, mocking) are greater than the perceived benefit. For the second passenger, the costs seemed light because he understood the benefit (not dying). Comfort’s application is that people need to understand sin and the penalty of sin before they can understand the gift of Christ’s death. The application for the purposes of this blog is that it is the speaker’s job to start where the hearer is at so that the message will be understandable and relevant to them. If it is understandable and relevant, then they will listen.

For the discipler, relevance theory helps us to understand what it means when Paul says, “I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them” (1 Cor. 9:19). Sure, this means when we go overseas we adapt the clothes we wear and the food we eat. But we have to go further. Here are several suggestions:

  1. Learn the language. We cannot reach the people if we do not speak their language. In our environment, that means learning Kwakum. It also means understanding what they mean by the words they use, which is deeper than just learning words. “Magic”, “sexual immorality”, “idolatry”, even “medicine” mean very different things to the Kwakum than they do to Americans. If we are going to communicate, we need to take the time to learn their language and how their worldview plays into their language.
  2. Learn the culture. In order to understand what such words mean, we have to understand their culture. When we speak to them they need to have somewhere to hang their hats. Disciplers need to know what the people understand and what they do not. This takes time, and means not only asking questions, but also observing their ways.
  3. Milk for babies, meat for adults. Paul said that he was gentle when he worked with the early churches, “like a nursing mother” (1 Thess. 2:7). We need to be gentle with the unreached and with new believers. Babies need Genesis before Romans. A gentle discipler takes the time needed to raise his children in the faith, which of course requires…
  4. Patience. Is it difficult for an educated pastor to reduce spiritual truths into something understandable to the uneducated? Of course. Yet, God has chosen the poor to be rich in faith. I have found that the obstacles we face here in bringing the Gospel to the Kwakum are enormous in that we must labor to start in a place that is understandable to our hearers. And yet, they are responding in faith because they are understanding the Word of God.

At the end of the day, relevance theory is a tool that can help us make disciples. The main takeaway is that those who seek to disciple need to work hard to make sure the message is understandable, so that the disciples don’t have to put out a lot of effort to understand. This takes a lot more time, learning, and patience than we would like. But, in the end, it is worth the effort.

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Author: Stacey Hare

Stacey is a servant of Jesus Christ as well as a wife, mom, linguist, and Bible translator. Right now she is working creating literacy materials so the Kwakum people can learn to read and write in their language. She is also working on translating Old Testament stories into Kwakum with her husband and local Kwakum colleagues.

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