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The chain of communication and the forgetting curve

Evangelism is a tag team activity, it is rarely about one person connecting with one person. It has been proven that we all need numerous encounters with information before it really sinks in. This theory was first suggested by Hermann Ebbinghaus in 1885. His research showed that we all have a Forgetting Curve which is "the theory that humans start losing the memory of learned knowledge over time, in a matter of days or weeks, unless the learned knowledge is consciously reviewed time and again." (source:

Apparently there are various factors that can affect the rate of forgetting. Three key ones are:

  • Meaningfulness of the information

  • The way it is represented

  • Physiological factors (stress, sleep, etc)

This is extremely relevant to the work of evangelism. How meaningful do we make it? In other words have we listened first and are addressing a felt need? How well do we present the information? Is it engaging, is it modelled and authentic. People want more than information, they want imitation, in other words, is it lived out and observable?

Have we taken into account the person's wellbeing? Do we ask "is this a good time?" Perhaps they are too tired to listen well? Have we connected well, are we the right person to make that connection or is there someone who might be better suited?

This is why team is so important. We all need different points of contact. There is a story in John 12:20-22 about a group of Greeks who want to meet Jesus. The communication dynamics are interesting. They first approach Philip.

"Now there were some Greeks among those who went up to worship at the festival.They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, with a request. “Sir,” they said, “we would like to see Jesus.”Philip went to tell Andrew; Andrew and Philip in turn told Jesus."

First of all these Greeks are spiritual seekers, they have come to Jerusalem for the festival. In psychological terms they are open minded.

Have you wondered why they approached Philip? They could have asked any of the Twelve.

Philip (which is a Greek name) is often connected to the Greek community. Most scholars assume Philip had Greek ancestry and probably spoke koine Greek the international language of the time. This is perhaps why Philip is appointed as a deacon to the Greek speaking Jews in Acts 6.

In church tradition, Philip as an apostle is said to have focussed on Greece as his mission field. So there are strong cultural connections, he is the most accessible person to the greek speaking community. This cultural connection is important, it makes Philip the best connector and communicator with that people group.

However did you notice that Philip does not go directly to Jesus, he first pulls in Andrew. Whenever Andrew is named in the bible, it is nearly always a story about bringing somebody into a relationship with Christ. Andrew is the first disciple of Jesus who then brought his brother Simon Peter to Jesus. Andrew is another connector type. Now we have two connectors, Philip and Andrew, bringing the Greeks to Jesus. Interestingly Andrew is martyred in Greece and becomes their patron saint (as well as Scotland, both countries have the blue and white St Andrews Cross in their national flag).

Can you see how this is unfolding. The Greeks are in Jerusalem, they must have heard stories about Jesus. They are seeking and open. Even before they meet Philip they have had a variety of communication/contact points with the story of this potential Messiah. They go to Philip because he is the most accessible to them. Philip recruits Andrew and they finally connect directly with Jesus.

Let's go back to our Forgetting Curve idea. Does this story contain good methods to receive and remember? The information the Greeks have is meaningful. It is presented in stories of a miracle working Jewish Rabbi but they want to know more. They choose Philip and he becomes their guide. Philip is a team player and together with Andrew as his companion, the Greeks come face to face with Jesus. There is a chain of communication and there is a learning curve. This is a process and involves many people.

This shows us that evangelism is not primarily about the one-off one person approach. It happens (think of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch) but the most effective approach seems to be team based and recognising the process of hearing, forgetting and hearing again.

How should we respond to this? I would suggest that we need to rethink the role of the evangelist. They are a team player, someone who is a link in the chain of many God encounters as part of a person's journey. They are at their most effective in a culture they are familiar with. There is of course a need for cross cultural mission. However most of us are speaking to people we know in a culture we know. It's a good place to begin and a good place to grow our missional muscles.

Lets remember the curve of forgetting (pun intended). People need more information and more examples of the life of Jesus than we realise, give them time and space. This should also encourage us to speak out more than we do because the reality is that in the post christian West many people have not heard the good news as often as they need to in order to make a conscious choice.

Finally be kind to yourself, the pressure is not all on us. Pray that our friends, family and work colleagues encounter God in a variety of ways and through different voices.

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