Take a moment and think about your favorite song. Maybe it’s a song from your youth that holds a nostalgic sway over you whenever you hear it. Maybe it’s a song from your wedding that kindles feelings of romance and love. Maybe it’s a song that helped you get through a particularly tough season of life.
Now that you have a song in mind, I want you to think about this: How would you go about introducing that song to a friend who was deaf? How would you help that person appreciate the crescendos, the rhythms, the harmonies? How would you share the beauty of your favorite song with someone whose ears couldn’t hear it?
Recently the technology company HP explored this very theme in an advertisement for a new laptop computer. The commercial features two brothers who overcome the obstacle of deafness to bond through music. Take a moment to watch it:
Now let me assure you that I have no vested interest in your next computer purchase. I’m not trying to sell you HP products here. But I do have a vested interest in how the church engages the world with the gospel, and I happen to think that this commercial has something profound to teach us in that regard.
Could you see how the deaf brother (I’m going to call him Zeke) felt at the concert? His face said it all. He felt alienated and disconnected. Although his brother (I’ll call him Miles) had extended an invitation to him as a gesture of love, in the end, it left Zeke feeling like an outsider, hopelessly distanced from his brother and the dancing crowds surrounding him.
But then Miles changed his tactic. Instead of inviting Zeke to enter his world, Miles found a way to enter Zeke’s world. He translated an auditory language into a visual language. He allowed his brother to engage the music in a way he could understand. And in the end, it was this creative commitment to contextualized love that made all the difference.
As Christians, we have a song to sing to the world. It’s the gospel song—a song of hope, redemption, and joy—a song that faithful Christians have been singing exuberantly throughout the centuries.
But all too often, it’s possible for us to sing this song in a way that makes sense to us, without considering the world’s ability to actually hear it. While we’re sitting up in our (literal or metaphorical) choir lofts, carefully perfecting every note, we fail to notice that the world is staring at us with a look of bewildered confusion. We’re like Miles rocking out at the concert, while the Zekes around us look on, perplexed by what they can’t hear.
In practical terms, we might call this a “come to us” mentality of church outreach. We truly are trying to love our neighbors. But we’re assuming that a big enough event or an impressive enough program will convey that love and draw them into the faith. In other words, it’s simply a matter of us singing loudly enough. But when we ask the world to engage with the gospel on our terms and in our language, we always run the risk of alienating them. And when that happens, we’ll find that as beautiful as our song may be, we’re really only singing it to ourselves.
On the other hand, if we really love our song—and if we really love the world around us—then we should be eager to do what Miles did. We should look for creative, faithful ways to translate our song into a language that is intelligible to others. We should stop expecting people to come to us; instead, we should go to them. Enter their worlds. Learn their languages. Understand their objections. Speak to their hearts.
It’s easy to sing and invite people to come listen. But to be a church that truly loves the world, that’s not enough. We need Spirit-empowered creativity to learn a new language, to sing in a new way. The song will never change. But we should never stop exploring new ways to help others hear it.