Style, Content, and Context

I have been frustrated. Better stated, I have had a frustration. I could not clarify what the frustration. I knew it when I saw it. I could say, "that's it!" I couldn't tell you the root of my frustration. There were plenty of reasons I could be legitimatly frustrated by these things. But I could identify the cause, my belief. My lack of understanding was leading me to become hypersensitive to the "thing" that I was seeing all around me, in my church, among fellow youth workers, in Christian leaders I look to for wisdom and in myself.

A month ago, I began to get some clarity.

Good communication has style and content. Most do not master both style and content. A pastor must first be concerned with content. A sunday school teacher, youth worker or anyone delivering a message (Christian or other) needs to be concerned with the content first. "So faith comes from what is heard" (Romans 10:17a). By definiton content is the substantive or meaningful part.

Style is important. How we say something or present something has an impact. There is a robust discussion with in the church in regards to style. What can we do to enrich the message, to engage the recevier and perhaps provide additional meaning? Style.

Part of my frustration is I see far too many folks running around wanting to be "style" people. People concerned about how things look and how they are preceived. Some are legitimate. Some are what I call the "cool kids" (cool for the sake of cool). Most are those responsible for content.

Sidetrack: I declared the word "cool" dead in my vocabulary about four months ago. The word is over used and has lost it's meaning. If I say we are doing something "cool" what have I communicated? What does it say about us that we want "cool" leaders? If you hear me use the word "cool" I am describing the weather, the forehead of my child or I'm on a rant.

For months I have been confronted with content people that want to be style people. I have found myself desperate for content. Grown weary of "style" being the higher priority. As I mentioned before most of us can do one or the other (content or style) well. So, a content person spending their time concerned with style, while neglecting content is bad, bad, very bad.. It has affected my worship, forced me to examine my ministry, become the focus of relationships and left me exhausted.

This morning driving to work it became clearer. Context has to enter into the mix. Jesus had content down. He was the Word (how's that for content). I know there books about teaching the way Jesus did, but none I know of about dressing like Jesus. Adopting the look of Jesus isn't going to help any more than me dressing like (insert name of coolest Christian you know). Jesus made things relevant. Even if we are too stupid, proud, or sinful to see it.

"So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ." Romans 10:17

So I'm focusing on staying true to the Word and finding ways to be relevant to the community.

Help me out. What are your thoughts?


adrienne. said...

great post with great thoughts. I agree with what you're saying - I need depth in content first and foremost. However, there are some speakers that may be amazing in that respect but their delivery style is completely distracting and I miss it. It definitely has to be a fusion of the two, and that can be hard to find.

When I look at Jesus, I see context being incredibly important - who he was speaking to shaped how he worded His message, but not the content. This cannot be overlooked.

I think our bottom line should always be staying true to the Word and constantly striving to bring it into our respective worlds: our families, our churches, our coworkers, and our communities.

Artie said...

I tend to agree with what you say in that we tend to be one or the other.. one more reason we are all part of the same body. Some people are experts on the content but maybe can't develope the environment for effective delivery..step in someone who is good at that part. The hand cannot be the foot..etc...etc.. I do think it's important that content lead the charge..there has to be a Holy Spirit led design to whatever there is or it turns in to a bunch flashy junk grasping at ways to tell some story that is uncertain...or that is not authentic it is development. The heart is content but no doubt there are those with the gift of style that can help with presenting that content in such a way that reaches more people who are unsure of these "followers of Jesus"..

Doyle Srader said...

I use "cool" as a phatic message, which puts it in the same category as "How're you doing?" It just means I heard what someone said, and I acknowledge in a positive way that they said it. Other than that, it's entirely meaningless.

One of my earliest debate coaches was fond of saying "Style and substance are inseparable," and Marshall McLuhan is up to the same thing when he says "The medium is the message." And something I've taught in public speaking since the very beginning is, "Your message has needs, and your audience has needs, and you can't abandon one to pursue the other." Instead, you've got to work out a way to align those needs so that one strategy lets you fulfill them both. That requires studying them, knowing more and more about them, and as a result spotting the angles when they present themselves.

Artie said...

As I think on this more...Jesus used style.. parables... to make his points. God used style.. met us where we were..had to become us to enter our lives in a meaningful way and impact it...but still the content was what we needed too. Doyle is right on..

Nick Savides said...

Hello Dave,
I found you through Twitter.

Yes, the style/substance question is a tricky one. Substance is what ultimately matters, but the world is a very cluttered place. I make assumptions about the type of food and atmosphere I'll get at a restaurant based on its outward style. I look at the covers of books, CDs, and movie posters for hints about the substance of those pieces.

I do the same in regards to matters of faith and philosophy. When churches insist on doing things in the same way they did 200 years ago, I assume that they haven't thought much about making the timeless message of faith relevant for the particulars of today's world. St. Augustine, Martin Luther, and CS Lewis all sought to make their faith relevant to the times they inhabited. They are interesting to me. Dogmatic people who insist on preserving the old-time religion are not as interesting.

Still, there is the danger of going too far with style that you no longer have anything substantial to offer. Having these kinds of style/substance discussions helps to maintain a balance.

Eric S. Mueller said...

I agree with Nick. I've reached the point of saying that there is a difference between the Gospel message and the methods used to communicate that message. The message should never change, but we should adapt our communication methods to the medium we find ourselves in.

DA Wagners said...

I was talking to a friend about this concept just the other day. She was feeling guilty because the way she converses w/ some people about her faith is very different from the way she converses with others.

Is she a fraud? Is she not standing firm in how God designed her?

I think context (and Holy Spirit) is the key to the entire situation. The best example I can think of from the Bible is Paul. He presented things very differently to the Jewish leaders than he did with the Gentiles. He shaped himself into a better image of himself that would more effectively influence those with whom he was reaching for the Gospel.

Was he a fraud? No, he was simply the most effective minister for Christ in all of history.

Context is extremely important, though, it takes a lot of work. Thank you for the term "context." You've simplified the concept into a nice digestible nugget.