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Charles Kraft’s Communication Theory for Christian Witness [1983]

Author: Garry Bailey
Published: Winter–Spring 2018

MD 9.1

Article Type: Review Article

Kraft, Charles H. Communication Theory for Christian Witness. Rev. ed. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1991.

The book Communication Theory for Christian Witness by Charles Kraft is an intriguing work. It was originally published in 1983, which was an interesting time in the history of communication theory. The field of communication was struggling for an identity as a legitimate field of study and research in the academy. Many scholars complained that there was no unifying theory or research method for the discipline and the only subject matter was process and not content. The dominant conversations in the discipline of communication were often about the ways systems theory explained communication processes or the new emerging perspective of the cultural view of communication using interpretive methods.

Kraft’s book does not engage that struggle. Instead, he offers readers a valuable perspective for looking at the work of missionaries in communicating the message of God.

Kraft raises many important points that communication theorists were wrestling with from the 1960s to the 1980s, but he describes the effective uses of each element of communication he discusses. Rather than creating a work that reviews the contributions of communication theorists, this book is results oriented. It provides a very good introduction to the key processes of communication that are often described as the SMCR (Source-Message-Channel-Receiver) model.

Early social scientific research in communication often looked at effectiveness in each of the elements of the model. The dominant conversation in the discipline eventually turned to an interactive view of communication, assuming that for a message to be communication, it must have feedback. The cybernetic perspective led to more significant systems oriented research. By the time of Kraft’s book, the dominant view of communication was that communication is really a transactional process of multiple simultaneous verbal and nonverbal message exchanges between senders and receivers in some context. This is the view that Kraft keys in on as he applies the communication process to sharing God’s story and to communicating in culturally different contexts.

Kraft has great breadth and depth in his professional work. He joined the faculty at Fuller Theological Seminary in 1969 and holds the rank of Senior Professor of Anthropology and Intercultural Communication in the School of Intercultural Studies. He did his PhD work at Hartford Seminary Foundation. In addition to his academic work, Kraft served as a missionary in Nigeria. His teaching ranges from spiritual dynamics to anthropology and communication.

The book Communication Theory for Christian Witness fits in well with other concerns in missions. Missiological scholarship gives attention to critical missions topics such as translation of Scripture and other texts into local languages. Linguists know that good translation is not a mere change of words. Translation must account for meanings that relate closely to cultural meanings, beliefs, and spiritual values. From a communication perspective, words shape the perception one has of reality. Within a culture, words determine what topics are thought about, and they lead speakers to particular mindsets.

The role of behaviors accompanying words is also important in missions and communication scholarship. Nonverbal meanings in gesturing, eye behavior, and managing space and time all influence the understanding of cultural differences and effectiveness in missions. Missionaries must learn to adapt culturally and build relationships or suffer the consequences of lacking understanding of the local culture’s values, beliefs, and attitudes. These concerns continue to be central in communication theory.

Kraft’s book makes some very useful claims about the interrelations of God, people, and missions. In the first chapter he writes about intimacy and the relationship with God through prayer. God’s desire for relationship with humanity brings us to think about prayer as a communication tool for that relationship. In chapter 2, Kraft details his ideas about what God wants in communication with his human creation. In a number of ways and with great consistency, God reaches out to humans to invite relationship. The relational system God exemplifies in Scripture is one that assumes active communication for maintaining a healthy relationship.

In Chapter 3, Kraft identifies what he sees as myths of communication in the context of relationship with God and the process of missions. Research in the field of communication counters these myths and reveals the more accurate and complete ways to understand the communication process. For example, hearing a message is not the same as having good communication between parties. Also, to understand ideas completely, one needs redundancy. This is a practice of having multiple ways to confirm the meaning of an idea. Communication happens in many ways, so it would be insufficient to think there is only one right way. Some missions programs focus on preaching, but it is a mistake to think that hearing information presented publicly is sufficient for good and complete communication.

Central to communication is a message, but the carefully worded message you send may not have the desired effect because words are perceived differently by different people. Another common problem communicators experience is thinking that more is better. However, saying the same thing louder or more often does not make communication more effective. And, depending on divine intervention in the communication process to create meaning is no guarantee that a message will be effective. In addition to providing a message, God can also equip people to communicate it effectively.

Kraft next turns his attention to elements of the communication process as they relate to God and mission. In chapter 4, he provides some depth of thought about the person as a source of a message. It is tempting to think of communication simply as a message that a person sends. The problem with that, however, is that messages communicated by persons are never as simple as the words being shared. Our messages are always embedded in a context, the identity of a person sharing the message, and a relationship. The actual impact of a message is more likely to come from the message receiver applying knowledge acquired from the message sender, beliefs that result from observing the ongoing behavior of the sender, and the relational aspects of life in general that are consistent with the message.

The study of messages is as important a focus in the communication discipline today as it has been since the time of the ancient rhetoricians. Kraft highlights some enduring principles of message logics. For example, we cannot avoid communicating. Whether we speak or remain silent, we are always communicating. A second common principle from a systemic point of view is that we never send a single message. Because of the complexity of human communication, receivers will perceive more than one message in any communication event. A third principle is that once messages are sent, they cannot be unsent. There is a possibility of retrieving some messages that were never received, but this also means communication did not occur. A communication event must include all elements, including sender(s), messages, channels, and receiver(s).

In chapter 5, Kraft details the notions of message and technique, highlighting the importance of message types, audience issues, and messaging techniques. It is also important to know the purpose of a message so it can be designed appropriately. Kraft discusses the purposes for messages that have been part of the communication and rhetoric scholarship since Plato and Aristotle. A message can be ceremonial, informative, or persuasive, and a number of categories characterize each of these types of purpose. In mission environments, a message about religious topics can easily be perceived as persuasive when the intended purpose is really developing relationship. Audience issues, including size and context, also impact relational development. Communication events may occur in private, one-on-one conversation or messages sent out via mass media. The messenger must consider whether the communication context will achieve the intended purpose.

Contemporary research in communication gives significant attention to the messaging techniques of monologic or dialogic approaches. Kraft highlights the importance of these approaches in good communication events. People working in media missions can craft very good monologic messages if they do so very carefully for a well understood audience. Alternatively, for building relationships in a mission context, it is important to use dialogic processes. Dialogic communication is the authentic valuing of the other. It seeks to engage in communication that supports the interests of all parties. It invites a collaborative approach to understanding and working for common goals. Kraft goes further to suggest very appropriately that effective communication is “life involvement.” When people are involved in life activities together, they share understanding more completely than they can by sending each other messages about their experiences. From the communication perspective, this is a good way to describe the effective use of dialogue.

In chapter 6, Kraft gives attention to the receptor or receiver of messages. This is a view of communication that suggests that the receiver is part of a transactional process. This means the receiver is an active participant in the exchange of many messages in a communication event. A common assumption among people communicating is that senders and receivers in the exchange create and share meaning. Sometimes people assume that in their communication with others they have a high degree of shared meaning, but humans are too complex for this to occur without a great deal of communication effort. However, to reach higher degrees of shared understanding, communication participants typically rely on the interchange of many messages, some simultaneous and some not. Another important topic that Kraft addresses is the fact that communication participants have needs. In order for meaning to be created, participants naturally seek to increase awareness of the needs and desires of each party. Additionally, receivers of messages are part of groups who have typical collective responses, and they also have personal beliefs and values that will influence how messages are received.

One contemporary communication view is that meaning is co-constructed by participants in a communication event. This stretches what Kraft articulates in chapter 7 of his book about how meaning happens and is shared. Kraft talks about the fact that receptors do construct meanings, and he makes clear that some theories of communication focus on meanings being in people rather than in the symbols used for messages or in the external world. Co-constructing meanings is actually a negotiated event. Aspects of the negotiation are autonomic responses as humans naturally mirror the behavior of others when they are socially or physically attracted to each other. Resistance responses also occur in an autonomic way. Some of our responses are also intentional. Humans co-construct meanings by negotiating with each other in autonomic and intentional ways.

Beyond the construction of meaning, Kraft provides an excellent view of how receptors of messages go through the perception process even to the point of including evaluation. People cannot help doing some degree of evaluation and determining tolerance for message characteristics that come from the message sender. Kraft also suggests that message receptors construct meanings that maintain equilibrium. His point is that message intentions may not agree with the receptor’s current belief system, the constructed meaning may have the effect of being an irritant to the receptor, or the perceived meaning may suggest needed change in a receptor that does not want change. In the context of sharing the Christian message with nonbelievers, the received meanings often disrupt receptor equilibrium. Therefore, a goal of the message sender in sharing the Christian story should be to become more receptor-oriented. Certainly, message senders should have clear and accurate message content to share, but predicting how the message recipients will construct meaning is more challenging and critically important for the communication event.

The simple form of a communication event looks like a source sending a single message through a channel to a receiver. A better view of a communication event would begin with a live action dialogue of at least a paragraph from a script of the particular interaction. Determining meaning essentially requires a dynamic interpretation of a sufficient number of statements and responses, in conjunction with nonverbal behaviors accompanying the interactions, the relational patterns expected between interactants, and the context of the communication event providing parameters for dictating meaning. The human experience of making meaning is not a simple event. It is a complex dynamic in which a particular meaning of an event can never be fully shared. The work of determining meaning is done by different people who will ultimately never share complete understanding due to the complexity of how humans interpret messages.

Kraft emphasizes the fact that the importance of a receiver orientation to meaning is often a threatening idea to a Christian communicator trying to share God’s story. Kraft suggests that those of us interested in sharing God’s story must understand at least the typical ways a receiver will construct meanings of communication events. After discussing the difficulty of constructing meaning in communication events, in chapter 8 Kraft suggests that this complexity does not prohibit humans from sharing a degree of meaning that enables people to act together and have a sense they understand one another.

Even though there are many ways in which meanings can be distorted or misconstructed, the human complexity also enables complex translations of differences and interpretations of intended meanings. The good news about communication is it is a patterned phenomenon of humans who have the ability to read texts and contexts and make reasonably accurate interpretations. Our practice of communicating will be to construct meanings in typical ways for typical scripts shared in typical ways in particular contexts. Those of us trying to share God’s story quickly realize it is important to get to know our audience and to study the ways they construct meanings for communication events in order to share with them in meaningful ways.

The ways people share their symbols and then construct meanings is a critical part of the process that Kraft attends to in chapter 9. He refers to the ways or channels as “vehicles” used for carrying our messages (109). He suggests that there are two primary types of vehicles, which are codes and media. These include various channels people use to communicate, including the spoken word, the written word, numbers, pictures and sight, sounds, movement, touch, rituals, use of time and space, and even smells. Any of these can contribute to shared understanding.

Among the vehicles for creating meaning, Kraft discusses the ways that people use codes to share God’s story. The typical church experience includes a message spoken in the language most attendees would understand, or at least a translated version of it. Church experiences often include music, which is a combination of codes. Sometimes outreach programs include food as a way to symbolize hospitality. Religious experiences are often sites of ritual coding, such as worship experiences that include rituals rich with deeply meaningful, coded messages.

Another potential “vehicle” or channel for creating meaning between people is the medium. Kraft prefers to think of the medium as either a “person” or “extended media” (117). The “person” oriented channel for creating meaning is about communication exchanges between people in a face to face, interpersonal manner. The notion of extended media refers to the use of technology where one person can communicate with many via technological channels. An important point about the “person” as the channel of a message is that persons are embedded and embodied parts of co-constructed meanings between people. This suggests that the people are integral parts of the meaning shared, not just the conduit. In this context, sharing God’s story is essentially a co-discovery of what God means between the parties in conversation.

For many people there is great difficulty in attempting to share God’s story in person. For this reason, and to reach many people simultaneously, some communicators choose to tell God’s story through mediated channels. When the context requires low tech options but receivers can read, a print version of a message can be effective, at least to begin. Mediated messages can be sent via radio, for example. In more complex technological environments, mediated messages can be sent via video technology. Good communication usually involves a personal dimension at some point, however.

In chapter 10, Kraft discusses the importance of context to the communication process. There are very few messages that are not dependent on context for meaning. The assumption in communication events is that the communication participants share a context and co-construct meaning through the sharing of codes within the context. Cultural differences between communicator and receiver make context a very important element of the process. Some cultures are typically higher in context while others are lower. In high-context cultures, meanings for messages are more embedded in the context, and verbal codes have less real meaning—other nonverbal codes plus different contextual dimensions are much more meaningful for communication. Therefore, words in a high-context culture do not carry as much meaning as do nonverbal cues or contextual variables such as historical meanings for a situation or the geographical location of the communication situation. A person from a high-context culture may tell a falsehood to save face in a situation because meanings are not in the words but in other contextual cues. The meaning in a situation for a person in a high-context culture may be understood from cues such as time of day, historical relationship between participants, age difference, or educational differences.

In low-context cultures, the context is less critical to the overall meaning of communication events. Verbal codes are more centrally meaningful, and there is less trust of nonverbal or context dimensions of the communication. In a low-context culture, one person may tell the other to not read too much into a situation. To the person in a low-context culture, words do matter for the meaning of messages.

In chapters 11 and 12, the focus is on how a communicator can effectively use the process of communication and determine what communicating for life change entails. The book takes an interesting perspective in detailing the critical elements of the process. The communication process of sources sending messages through channels to receivers was a topic most discussed in the 1960s and 1970s. However, the elements are as relevant today as ever. The application of the elements today, however, is seen in discussions of context such as interpersonal relationships, organizations, or cross-cultural communication.

Communication Theory for Christian Witness provides a helpful model to approach telling God’s story in places where that story is not known. Kraft makes the valuable contribution of providing an overall view of the communication process that deals with contemporary issues using a communication theory developed in the mid-twentieth century. Kraft does not go into great detail regarding the various communication theories or provide in-depth research and explanation of the theoretical issues, so it is quite accessible and practical for those who study missions.

The theory Kraft utilizes was built on a 1970s interconnected systems perspective of communication assuming interactants are part of a whole. A more contemporary perspective suggests that communication systems emerge from disconnected social acts, not as part of a whole interconnected system. These acts take on meaning in context, creating a coherent exchange between interactants.

Contemporary communication theory develops around the need to explain particular relational, social, or mediated exchange phenomena. Rather than advancing an overarching theory of the communication process as Kraft did, theorists today work in contexts that are specific to a type of communication phenomena and with a particular communication-related theoretical perspective.

Communication Theory for Christian Witness does not take into account many contemporary communication issues as the ideas Kraft assumes are limited to the 70s communication model. Research today would address the missions context in more specific and detailed ways. For example, research interested in articulating a communication theory for the missions context today may benefit from including theoretical constructs and perspectives such as social change, social construction, intercultural competence, post-colonialism, face-negotiation, and dialogic ethics. These are the beginning places for theory development in the missions context.

Garry Bailey is Associate Professor of Conflict Resolution at Abilene Christian University (Abilene, Texas).

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