Connecting with the Missing Millions

Millions across the world stared at their televisions in disbelief this week as the inauguration of the 45th President of the United States was televised live. The impossible was finally happening: A property tycoon and brash reality tv star was being sworn in as President. It was actually happening: Donald Trump is now POTUS. For many this was simply another massive shock in a year of shocks that began across the pond in the North East of England.

Silksworth Tennis Centre in Sunderland is hardly ever the centre of the world’s attention but on 26 June last year it was. The occasion was the UK referendum on whether to leave or stay in the European Union.

As the polls closed that night the result was tipped by pollsters to be a narrow margin of victory for the Remain vote. In fact in the lead up to the vote, of 168 polls conducted, less than a third predicted a victory for the Leave vote. The results from Sunderland were the first to come through in the live election count broadcast. The vote was 68% in favour of leaving. The various panels on tv coverage were stunned.

As the citizens of the UK slept the results came pouring in and the nation awoke to a shock victory for the Leave campaign. How could the pollsters get it wrong? How could the media get it wrong? Where were these voters hiding?

A clue was provided by Sunderland Central MP Julie Elliott who said: “Clearly there are lessons to be learned and we need to be out there talking to people to understand what’s going on in the North East.

A few days later many Australians were reeling from their own shock at the resurrection of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party. When the final Senate count was in One Nation had gained 4 seats on a cross bench which swelled to 11 making Pauline Hanson a major player in Canberra. It is widely recognised that Hanson is able to tap into the concerns and aspirations of voters that the political mainstream are missing. The same was said in the United Kingdom about the leader of UKIP, Nigel Farage.

The biggest shock however was to come in the early hours of November 9 when Donald Trump declared victory. Once again the media and pollsters were contradicted by a silent vote. The ‘deplorables’ as his opponent Hillary Clinton infamously called many of Trump’s supporters voted with their feet and their pencils to bring about what was thought impossible.

What does this phenomenon of the ‘deplorables’ making their voice heard teach us as Christians? A facile answer would be to say that this is simply a phenomenon of populism: populist politicians tapping into deeply racist and xenophobic people. It could be deeper than that and for evangelism it could provide some important learning points for us in terms of how we either connect or bypass the people of the communities that we seek to serve and reach with the Gospel.

It’s clear that the media, pollsters and especially politicians are not connecting with a large sector of the community who do not necessarily appear on the radar of social media and whose opinions are not reflected by mainstream media. The missing millions are often fearful of expressing their contrary opinions in polite conversation and especially on the free for all of social media. Their safety lies in the ballot box, where shielded from any criticism they can cast their vote.

Quite aside from politics this something the church is often complicit in. We do not necessarily hear or understand many of the people we say we would like to reach with the Gospel. We know what we believe and what makes us tick but we don’t necessarily understand them and they know it. It’s always easier to dialogue with a receptive audience where some level of mutual trust and understanding exists, especially about something as earth shatteringly important as the surrender of a life to the lordship of Christ.

Here’s some tips on how to be better than the pollsters at having a finger on the pulse:

1.       Stop Preaching, Start Listening
If there’s anything the Australian psyche is resistant to, it’s the perception that they are being ‘preached’ at. This presumes a power differential between the person who knows little (the hearer) and the person who knows it all (the Christian). We need to learn the art of passive urgency. We urgently want the world to know about Jesus but we need to be passive enough to listen rather than just talk. Practise saying “I’m interested to know your view on…”.

2.       Give Freedom To Disagree
Many people are anxious to participate in conversations or debates where there is only one right view. The ease of being labelled as a ‘phobic’ of one kind are another is too great for many to offer opinions on key social issues. I feel that pressure myself even though I can hold my own in a debate. These days I inquire first about the ground rules of dissent before offering any, if at all. Assure people that their point of view is valid and that you are keen to hear it.

3.       Understand
We are confident in our opinion that ‘people really ought to hear the Gospel’. Theologically this true but interpersonally this doesn’t come across well. People know if others are genuinely trying to hear their point of view. Even if you don’t agree with the opinions of people try to understand the origin and cause of those opinions. You may not be able to address those root causes but it makes a world of difference to someone if they genuinely feel that someone else has not just listened but tried to understand them. Walk a mile in someone else’s shoes and chances are you’ll have their ear.

4.       Secular Consultants
I’ve found it helpful to have a few friends who are not Christians to act as a sounding board for me. I pitch things to them first to see if my language makes any sense and if they relate to the content of what I’m trying to portray. If you don’t have anyone like that it’s a sign that you are in the church bubble too much and need to branch out. When I design resources for Christmas and Easter I get my secular friends to give me their verdict. If they don’t get it at all I go back to the drawing board.

5.       Live Incarnationally
If you aren’t hanging out with people who have no faith in Jesus chances are you’ll be pretty average at reaching people with the Gospel. By having friendships with people who do not share your faith assumptions you’ll be more grounded into the community and more in touch with what people feel about a range of issues, be they political or spiritual.

All the above doesn’t mean that we have to endorse the viewpoints that we hear. It can mean that they provide us an opportunity to counter with something that points to Christ. We can learn the art of holding disagreements in tension with relationships of understanding and trust. Nobody likes being looked down on, and we can easily be guilty of that in the manner that we make our pronouncements. The Apostle Paul gave us some clues with his intent on being ‘all things to all people’. That’s a hard line to find and to walk but well worth it for the sake of the Gospel.

 

Stan Fetting, Crossover Operations Manager, January 2017