“To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.” (1 Corinthians 9:20-22)

Context is king. That’s the best advice anyone can receive when approaching the Scriptures, or any piece of writing, for that matter. Without attention to context – setting, circumstances, genre, target audience, authorial intent – readers will miss the point of a text, or misunderstand it altogether.

It’s the same principle for living as followers of Jesus and sharing him with others. The Gospel itself is eternal and unchanging. But sharing it without sensitivity to the cultural and spiritual context of those listening – and watching – may cause them to miss the message, or not hear it at all.

Reading the cultural and spiritual landscape

The Apostle Paul wrote his brief manifesto on contextualization to the church in Corinth, a city noted for wealth, materialism and sexual immorality, even by the standards of the Greco-Roman world. The city’s populace included everything from strict Jews to pagan temple prostitutes, and Paul recognized the need for different approaches in sharing the Gospel with these varied groups.

Contemporary Western society is of course different from 1st-century Corinth. But there are also striking parallels, not to mention even greater diversity. Affluent, sexualized, individualistic secularism has become the predominant world view in the West, having replaced the cultural (and typically superficial) Christianity of earlier generations. At the same time, people from a widening array of ethnic and religious backgrounds have added to the social mosaic, their beliefs often at odds with those of the dominant secular culture.

Clearly there’s no single approach to gain a hearing for the Gospel within all of these diverse communities. The effort calls for wisdom and sensitivity on the part of God’s people, perhaps as never before.

Using real language like real people

The message of the Gospel is for a universal audience. It was first written in the common Greek that everyone at the time could understand, from rulers to scholars to uneducated labourers. Yet modern believers, when talking about spiritual matters with non-Christians, will often fall back on Christianese jargon and archaic phrases that no one outside the church has used in a century or two. Or else they’ll look for an opening to drop a Bible verse into a conversation, sometimes so awkwardly that it grinds the discussion to a halt.

It’s always good to keep in mind that formal, old-fashioned expressions aren’t any holier than casual speech, and can even be off-putting to those outside one’s faith community. Far better to speak about God in the same natural, unaffected language one uses with friends in everyday situations.

In the Book of Acts, when Paul spoke to Jews or Jewish proselytes, he would quote the Old Testament and refer to prophecies fulfilled by Jesus as the promised Messiah. This made sense, because his audience was familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures and had a context for what he was talking about.

However, when Paul addressed the pagan Greeks in Athens, who knew nothing about the Jewish faith, he didn’t quote any Scripture at them. Instead, he spoke to them in terms they could relate to, about a creator God who is sovereign over nations and individuals and will judge all people through a man he raised from the dead. The Apostle even cited a pair of pagan authors to make his case to the Athenians.

In the present cultural moment, when most people have little or no familiarity with the Scriptures, Paul’s approach at Athens may be the best model for Gospel engagement.

Giving up rights as well as preferences

The church in Corinth faced a challenge that has familiar echoes in current Christian circles. Theirs was a culture marinated in the pursuit of pleasure and personal fulfillment. As such, they were prone to stand on their rights and freedoms in Christ, with little regard for those who had weaker consciences. In response, the Apostle urged them to be ready to lay aside those rights and freedoms in order to remove any obstacle from the progress of the Gospel.

The specifics may be different today, but the principle is the same. Even in the midst of a permissive, hedonistic society, there are communities that have clusters of scruples about food and drink and dress and speech and social manners. The question remains: Are modern Western believers, steeped in a culture of individualism, willing to set aside their freedom in these areas for the sake of those who don’t share that freedom?

The opposite can also be true. Believers can have scruples about matters that aren’t essential to the faith. And yet they’re called to witness to a wider culture that may not agree with those scruples. In that case, the question becomes: Can they do it without judgment or condescension? More than that, can they set aside their preferences and engage in cultural expressions outside their comfort zone in order to win people to Christ?

Hudson Taylor, the 19th-century British missionary to China, found that his clothing and manner marked him as an outsider and created a barrier to the reception of the Gospel. In time, he adopted local Chinese dress, grew his hair and braided it in the style of the Chinese men around him. The move scandalized some of his European contemporaries, but gave him a far greater hearing for the message of Jesus.

Being respectful, kind and compassionate

Non-Christians need to know that Christians are for them and care about them as people, and don’t just see them as cases to fix. In conversations about faith (or about anything else) it’s essential to listen, to respect the beliefs and customs of others, and to engage their point of view with integrity.

This may all seem self-evident, and yet believers all too commonly fall down in this area. They stereotype the views of non-believers, reducing them to straw man arguments that are easy to dismiss. And instead of listening, they’re just waiting for the other person to finish talking so they can make their own point. This is not the way to have honest, respectful dialogue about spiritual matters.

On a practical level, Gospel proclamation can never be divorced from acts of kindness and compassion. Caring for the sick, the poor, the hungry and the lonely has always been tied to the message of salvation. In fact, taking care of someone’s physical needs is quite often the catalyst that makes them receptive to hearing about Jesus.

All for the sake of the Gospel

“For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. . . . I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.”
(1 Corinthians 9:19,23)

It’s possible to pursue contextualization for the wrong reasons. On the one hand, it can be a cover for embracing the ideas of the dominant culture in order to avoid being seen as out of touch or unsophisticated. On the other, it can become a legalistic attempt to earn favour with God, in which we pride ourselves for engaging with “those people,” whom we still don’t really like or understand, deep down.

But the only motive that will empower us to love those who are different from us, to respect their beliefs and to step away from our freedoms in order to share Jesus with them, is the Gospel itself. Knowing that Jesus loves us and gave himself for us provides the incentive to do what we can to break down barriers so that others may experience him in the same way.

Jesus is our Saviour and Lord, but also our teacher and example. Throughout the Gospels, his underlying message remains the same: The Kingdom of God has come; repent and believe the good news. However, the way he frames and applies that message varies from individual to individual and from group to group. At the death of Lazarus, he engages Martha in a discussion about the resurrection. With Mary, he simply weeps.

This, according to Tim Keller, is because Jesus is the Wonderful Counsellor. As his followers, we pray he’d grant us something of his wisdom and sensitivity as we interact with people from diverse walks of life, for his name’s sake.

Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.

© 2019 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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