This is the final part of a 3 part series. In part I, I discussed the fact that the gospel is relevant to every culture. In part II, I showed how all of humanity, regardless of culture, finds the gospel to be a distant message. In this post, I want to look at the practical side of what this means for us in evangelism/missions and how we can remove these barriers of communicating the gospel.
What is the difference between “removing barriers” and preaching a different gospel?
But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. (Galatians 1:8)
I should start by making it clear that by no means am I proposing that we “adjust” the gospel itself. The truths of the gospel must be communicated to every person even if they lack the cultural categories to understand it. What I am proposing is that in some cases we need to build these categories in the person’s frame of mind in order for them to understand the gospel. Furthermore, in some cases I think it is appropriate to see where the gospel is already speaking in terms they can understand; it is us who overlooks these things because we are focused on the aspects we best understand.
How do we identify barriers to the gospel in a person?
If you’re a missionary, this task should probably be started well before you set foot in the country. You should know what religions and philosophies dominate the area and how those things might create difficulty in understanding the gospel. However, when it comes to explaining the gospel to someone with whom you have been building a relationship, I would suggest that you consider the broad categories of the gospel and see where there is conflict with your understanding of their background and philosophy. These broad categories can be summarized: God, man, Christ, response.
Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, “To the unknown god.” What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. (Acts 17:22-23)
As Paul stood at the Areopagus, he knew what his audience believed about God- or (“gods” in their case). He wouldn’t have been wrong to start his evangelistic efforts by explaining God’s wrath toward them and how they needed salvation which only comes through faith in Christ, but they probably wouldn’t have understood him. Instead Paul pointed to the alter for the unknown god and used it as a teaching point of how pointless their worship was for gods that need to be served. He told them of the self-sufficiency of the Creator. Furthermore, he knew these people understood wrath, but what they didn’t understand was a loving God who provides the sacrifice for propitiating His own wrath.
Likewise, we should do our best to know what this person believes about God. Is he an atheist? Polythiest? Or maybe he grew up in America and already has a category for monotheism. In that case you will probably find yourself needing to establish the fact that God, as the Creator, has right and rule over our lives such that, if we are not righteous (that is, in Christ) before Him, His wrath will burn against us for eternity. As Americans we have a lot of gospel categories already established for us, but democracy (which is a good thing in my judgment) has removed the category of sovereignty from our cultural understanding.
Another thing that we should do our best to understand about those to whom we want to communicate the gospel is how they understand the condition of man. Do they believe that we are born good, bad, or neutral? How do they understand morality? Westerners tend to think along the lines of law and guilt, so it is appropriate (given that we have established accountability before God) that we point them to God’s moral Law to show them that they are sinners. However, some cultures understand things differently; a person from the East might think that right and wrong are determined based on whether or not an action brings honor on the community. In this case, it would be appropriate to help them understand the biblical doctrine of sin and guilt before God.
The next thing that we can look for is how this person understands Christ. Maybe he grew up with a Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness background; in that case it would probably be beneficial to explain the biblical picture of the person of Christ (that he is equal to God, 100% God and 100% man, etc…) before explaining the work of Christ and how that relates to our sin. For some people, however, it may be that they don’t know anything about Jesus, and they don’t have the proper category for atonement. If the person has a background that emphasizes spiritual union with God rather than guilt/righteousness, they are less likely to see the significance of a vicarious sacrifice of atonement.
One of my biggest faults in evangelism is a failure to explain the proper response to the gospel, yet this is probably where one’s background can affect him the most. Some might hear the gospel and assume that the appropriate response is to do good works, for others sincerity is the key, while many will say “well if he already died I guess I can just do whatever I want.” These are all sinful exaggerations of faith and repentance. As an evangelist, it is not your job to make them respond to the gospel in the moment you explain it to them; however, it is your job to make sure that you also explain that trust in Christ and repentance from sin is what God calls them to in the gospel.
What are some ways to connect the gospel to the things that a person already sees as culturally significant?
I don’t have all the answers but I can provide a couple of examples of how the gospel already speaks the language of some cultures. Remember, these examples are not to the neglect of substitutionary atonement; but rather, they can be understood right along with it.
When considering a shame-based culture (like we saw above) it is easy to think that we have to tell them that they already have things wrong. But that’s not the case. Though Westerners tend to understand law and justice, we tend to neglect shame. We seem to think that if we aren’t caught by the right people, we didn’t do anything wrong. When we are caught, we usually see the consequences within the limited scope of what we must do in order to be straight with the law again. However, the gospel tells us that Christ bore our shame and was put to grief because of our sin (Isaiah 53:10).
Another example is that there are many who see the significance of status way more than we realize. I think in terms of wanting to be forgiven by God, but does the gospel fulfill the needs of one whose inner-most being longs to be something better than they are? There are two ways that I see the gospel speaking to this kind of person. The first is that Christ, though being of the highest status, humbled himself to the status of a slave for us (Philippians 2:5-8). The second is that there is a great emphasis in the New Testament of the status we will have as glorified saints. Of course, we will worship God and even cast our crowns at His feet (Revelation 4:10). But we must not overlook the reality of our adoption in Christ, by which we become more than peasants invited to an eternal party; rather, we are children of the king!
Again, I don’t have all the answers, these are just a few thoughts. What do you think? How are some ways we can engage culture and remove barriers to the gospel?
Grace and Peace,
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