What is the best way to communicate the gospel in an age of information saturation?
Ironically I think the contemporary situation is analogous to that of the Early Church when information saturation was the opposite of most people’s problem. Limited opportunities for communication meant that evangelism and discipleship had to be complete, concise and backed up by a life of spirit-filled integrity from the communicator. Today the cacophony of communication that envelops our lives means that those same qualities are required for a very different reason. How can we expect people to find the gospel if it is hidden in the middle of an ever-expanding labyrinth of truth claims? Providing people with a map of reasoning to explore that leads through the maze might be playing the wrong game by the wrong rules. Our presentation of Gospel truth, whether it is for evangelism or discipleship, must be more immediate than that.
Just one interesting example of the issue is the New City Catechism being promoted at the Gospel Coalition. An excellent piece of work by a group of respected and faithful pastors, it is particularly interesting to me because we run a catechism class on Sunday Evenings. In our case we have been following Thomas Watson’s Body of Divinity which is broadly based on the Westminster Shorted Catechism. It has been an enjoyable process that has made me wrestle with questions about the purpose of theological lay education. What reception will the new catechism receive in the crowded porticos of 21st Cenutry evangelicalism? Time will tell, and I trust that God will use it, but I am not entirely sure that catechesis works the way it is intended.
I would tentatively suggest that catechesis does work well when it brings immature believers into pastoral contact with mature ones. But I suspect this may be more to do with the quality of the relationship than of the material being discussed. When this is not the case, the teaching and discussion of theological propositions seems to be of limited benefit. If catechesis does not work the way it is designed to work perhaps there is a tool better suited for our times.
Looking at the problem biblically, one has to ask whether there is a precedent for the practice of catechesis in scripture. Did Jesus catechise the disciples, or Paul for that matter? Did Paul catechise Timothy? Did Timothy catechise his churches? Some would say yes, but I think this involves a fair amount of eisegesis and may obscure more important tools for the task of making disciples. With the great commission of Matthew 28:19-20 ringing in their ears, the pastoral focus in the early church was training in obedience to the teaching of Christ, that we are to love one another as he taught us. This teaching was backed up by the lives of the teachers, they were authenticated by their fruit. There is certainly doctrine in that teaching, but it is core gospel doctrine: the Lordship of Christ, faith in his atoning sacrifice and resurrection to give us a new life in the power of the Holy Spirit.
You could argue that further doctrine acts as a trellis to the vine of the Christian life, but if we focus on creating intricate supporting structures we are in danger of forgetting to nurture the growth of the gospel life. I don’t believe that perfectly crafted theological indicatives cause Christian obedience any more than a perfect trellis causes a vine to grow. The New Testament is full of historical proofs of this, the Acts 2 church and the success of the church at Thessalonica after its high-speed founding by Paul are just two examples. Surely the primary task is to plant and water, to create growth in obedience and then to provide the support as we continue to tend the vine. I believe this is what the Apostle Paul did and I believe this is the pattern we should follow.
In an age when opportunities for effective communication are at a premium what believers need primarily is discipleship, training in obedience to Christ. Further theology is a secondary task.