John W. Vest is the Visiting Assistant Professor of Evangelism at Union Presbyterian Seminary.
As we’ve moved from books to posts to tweets to thumbs up, we keep making messages shorter. In a world with infinite choice, where there’s always something better and more urgent a click away, it’s tempting to go for shorter.
In fact, if you seek to make a difference (as opposed to gather a temporary crowd), shorter isn’t what’s important: Dense is.
Density is difficult to create. It’s about boiling out all the surplus, getting to the heart of it, creating impact. Too much and you’re boring. Not enough and you’re boring.
The formula is simple to describe: make it compelling, then deliver impact. Repeat. Your speech can be two hours long if you can keep this up.
And if you can’t, make it shorter!
Long isn’t the problem. Boring is.
This resonates with what we’ve been doing in the Introduction to Evangelism class at Union. I’ve asked students to do two final projects: 1) a presentation of no more than 15 minutes that articulates and communicates their understanding of the gospel and 2) a practical theology paper that develops their working definition of evangelism. On more than one occasion I also have asked them to define the gospel in two or three sentences, an exercise I also do when I lead workshops on evangelism. Mainline Protestants are not good at this. We tend to overcomplicate the gospel and have trouble boiling it down to something simple and straightforward.
This is where Seth’s reflection on length and density comes in. Presbyterians (and many other mainline Protestants) are infatuated with words. Our worship services are mostly words. We are uncomfortable with silence. We are people of “the Book” and many other books as well. We love words, yet we struggle to articulate the gospel in two or three sentences. We need to boil out all the surplus, get to the heart of it, and make it compelling and impactful.
This doesn’t mean superficial. Simple is not the same thing as simplistic. Rather, Seth calls for density.
This is exactly what I’ve been trying to convey to my students. When I ask them to articulate the gospel in fifteen minutes or three sentences, I’m not asking them to dumb it down. To the contrary, my assumption is that this kind of gospel communication should be dense in the sense that a whole bunch of other theology is baked into these efficient articulations.
This is not exhaustive by any means, but throughout our course of study I’ve been making a list of questions that shape our understanding of evangelism. Our articulations of the gospel and our working definitions of evangelism imply answers to questions like these:
- Is evangelism possible without absolute truth?
- What is the goal of evangelism?
- Is belief in hell necessary for evangelism?
- What’s at stake?
- Free will or predestination?
- What is the relationship between evangelism and social justice?
- What is the relationship between evangelism and discipleship?
- What is salvation?
- What is the nature of belief?
- What is the context of evangelism?
- What is the fundamental human need addressed by the gospel?
- What is the relationship between Christ and culture?
This class does not have any prerequisites so it’s open to students at all stages of study. However, it occurs to me that a class like this would make a perfect capstone to an MDiv program. After three years of studying Bible, theology, and history, how do we take all of that knowledge and condense it down to an efficient and compelling articulation of the gospel? Grounded in a lifetime of education and faith formation, how do we share with others why the gospel matters to us on a personal level?
That’s gospel density.