Signs and Communicating the Gospel

I may be preempting a post by my good friend Todd Littleton or this may serve as an intro to one of his future posts. I’m sure you are fine with it, right Todd? This is also a continuation of a series on reframing the message of Christ.

Signs are all around us. According to Arthur Asa Berger, in his book, ¢â‚¬Å“Signs in Contemporary Culture: An Introduction to Semiotics¢â‚¬, signs ¢â‚¬Å“are things which stand for other things, or…anything that can be made to stand for something else.¢â‚¬ An example of a sign is the word tree. The word tree and what is stands for, ¢â‚¬Å“a woody perennial plant having a single, usually elongate main stem generally with few or no branches on its lower part¢â‚¬ are not the same. The word is used as a sign of the idea or concept. The intent to communicate must also be kept in mind. Is ¢â‚¬Å“tree¢â‚¬ a noun or verb? The meaning is different when that is considered.

A sign can be anything: a theatrical presentation, a movie, a word, a hood ornament, a commercial, etc. The study of signs is called semiotics, which means literally, ¢â‚¬Å“words about signs.¢â‚¬

Semiotics are used heavily in communication and advertising and marketing. For example, the logo for BMW is a sign and has multiple meanings. It stands for the auto manufacturer. But it also stands for prestige and influence. If a BMW car is used in an ad for a clothing line, it is making an association with class, prestige, cost, and target market. The car or logo conveys a very distinct meaning.

The Bible uses signs. In the book of Jude, Jude uses semiotics to communicate a message about the false teachers his readers were encountering. In verse 11, Jude states: ¢â‚¬Å“11 Woe to them! For they walked in the way of Cain and abandoned themselves for the sake of gain to Balaam¢â‚¬â„¢s error and perished in Korah¢â‚¬â„¢s rebellion. (ESV)¢â‚¬ Every commentator on this book mentions that these men are ¢â‚¬Å“types¢â‚¬ or ¢â‚¬Å“signs¢â‚¬ of a certain kind of behavior that the Jewish culture understood as sin. In addition, Jesus was crucified between two political revolutionaries (Greek: lestes). What image was trying to be conveyed by Rome? That he was a political revolutionary.

Our Christian subculture has its own set of signs. An image of W.A. Criswell with a raised Bible invokes for many the conservative resurgence within the Southern Baptist Convention. Joel Osteen is a sign, as is Rick Warren. Put a picture of Rick Warren on a book, and that picture will create meaning in the minds of people all over the world. Ed Young, Jr., in addition to being a pastor, is a sign. Brian McClaren also has meaning apart from his role as a minister and even as a human being.

In the SBC, the blog SBCOutpost is a sign. Mention that name to many in the SBC and it will invoke meaning. For some, it will stand for a group antagonizing those who led the SBC conservative resurgence. For others, the meaning it has is as the outlet that is exposing corruption in those same leaders. The sign of Paige Patterson has a two fold meaning as well. For some, he is the savior of the SBC and for others, he is the poster child for all that is wrong in the SBC.

What if, when we began to share the message of Christ, we think about the images our words create. It may be necessary to reframe our words, using different signs to express the message. Quite honestly, this is hard work. It is harder than simply going through a canned presentation. It means understanding how people are motivated and what meaning words have in their lives. But if authentic transformation is to come through the message we present, we have to move from the sign of salvation being a way to get tickets on the 50 yard line of that heavenly stadium. It means presenting a message that has an impact on a person’s life today, a message more than “It will make your life better.” I will make, to some, several provocative statements through this series and here is one: trusting Christ as savior may not make your life better, it just might make it worse in some contexts.

Think about the signs and images your words create. Look at advertisements and see what meaning they are trying to create. This will help you not only understand culture, but understand how your words communicate to others. And you may land on a sign that will allow you to more effective communicate His message and in doing so, partner with the Holy Spirit in seeing the lives of others transformed.

David has been a systems thinker most of his life. He has started three businesses as well as designed and developed systems and processes in existing organizations. He has a Doctorate in Leadership and has also done additional post-graduate work in communications.

He has also pastored 3 churches and loves to think about, write about and podcast about scripture, theology, and leadership.

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1 comment
  • David, great introductory thoughts. Rather than preempt any post I have in mind, this will provide a great link for me. Enjoy thinking through these things with you. Keep up the good work and solid writing.

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