Thursday, May 03, 2012

A failure to communicate

My friend Larry Carter told me about a recent conversation he had with one of his students. Larry is the President of Great Lakes Christian College and works hard to be accessible to their student body. So, as is often the case, he joined a table of undergrads for lunch a couple weeks back.

Larry and I have several things in common. We both love history. We matriculated from the same graduate school. We both grew up in the Christian Church. And we both have a friend in Tom Hensley. Tom and Larry have been friends ever since they were young preachers in DeKalb County, Indiana. While Tom and Larry were forging their friendship at Huntington College (now Huntington University) Tom was teaching a very young Frank Weller as the preacher of my boyhood church. Tom remains close to my aunt and uncle, so I've kept in touch with him over the years.

Tom is also a great golfer. In fact, Tom is a club chaplain at Bay Hill Golf Club in Orlando, Florida.

Arnold Palmer's course.

A few weeks back Tom was able to play a round with Arnie. It was the second time he was able to tee it up with the great one. Matter of fact, Tom counts as one of his greatest moments when Arnie walked past him and said, "Great shot, Tom!" Who wouldn't?

Larry was sharing all of this with his table of students last week. They could see that he was excited for his friend, and excited to tell them of his once-removed brush with fame. But when Larry told them, "My friend, Tom, got to play a round of golf with Arnold Palmer last week," they seemed unimpressed. Lost even.

Then one student, a senior named Paige, brightened an blurted out, "Arnold Palmer . . . Oh you mean the lemonade guy!"

I don't know who felt older: Larry as he told me the story, or me as I heard it.

In either case, since we're both preachers, we learned that we can't take for granted that our listeners have the context in which to understand what we're saying. Clearly not all of them do. And that is the challenge. If I illustrate a sermon with a story from Watergate, more than half of the folks in the room will have no idea what I am talking about.

Even something more recent, say, a blue dress worn by a Presidential intern, is likely to garner several blank stares (my oldest child was a first-grader when President Clinton left office.)

It is incredibly challenging to communicate to an audience that can span as many as seven decades in age. And yet, if we're going to impart biblical knowledge and wisdom to all, my fellow preachers and I need to make sure we are relevant to every generation.