In every time period and historical context during which it has been shared, the gospel has confronted culture in one way or another.
During the years of Christ’s ministry, it challenged the mistreatment of the poor.
During the Reformation, it drove Martin Luther to condemn the selling of indulgences.
During the late 1700s, it inspired William Wilberforce to abolish the slave trade.
The message of Christ’s redemptive love and free gift of forgiveness for all has been the force behind centuries of social change. Christians who understand the implications of this gospel can’t help but find ways to apply its principals as they live and work in secular society.
For obvious reasons, however, cultural engagement brings with it unique challenges and complications. Many find themselves wanting to charge in, speak prophetically, criticize openly and then expect to wait and watch for meaningful change to occur. But as Christians work to identify issues of concern in communities—either our own or those elsewhere—a posture of respect becomes critical.
Ultimately, it’s not about forcing others into agreement or “winning” a debate. It’s about sharing the message of hope that we have and trusting God to change hearts and minds.
When we find ourselves in conversation with individuals from other cultures—particularly, those who don’t see eye to eye with us on spiritual matters—it can be easy to enter into ‘prophetic preacher’ mode. An attitude of superiority and condescension quickly cloud our witness and prevent others from receiving our message.
Sometimes, though, the most effective way to share is with our mouths closed.
When Paul visited Athens in Acts 17, we know he spent time reasoning with Jews, Greeks, and philosophers alike. But, he didn’t do so without first getting some context; he pursued understanding of these people’s culture before entering into the conversation.
We see him remark on observations of Athenians religiosity—he tells an audience of Athenians that he “walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship” reading their inscriptions and considering their philosophies (Acts 17:23).
Like Paul, we must practice a certain level of cultural literacy; before offering criticism or commentary, we need to understand who we’re speaking to and where they’re coming from. When we do this, we learn how to share truth in a way that others can recognize and relate to.
People respond well to the gospel in relational contexts. While I’m confident that God can and does work through a variety of evangelistic efforts, I know from personal experience that the gospel is best shared between two people who’ve established a certain rapport with one another over a period of time.
When trust is established, people are generally much more willing to open up and share their story.
This is why it’s so important for followers of Christ to enter into community with those who are different from them. When we build relationships with people from other cultures, backgrounds and belief systems, we build bridges and pave the way for the gospel message to be shared.
A relational approach to evangelism requires just as much intentionality as other forms; in many cases, even more. It means being diligent in the development of new friendships, prayer and generosity with our time among other things. It means being the hands and feet of Christ in ways that take us out of our comfort zone and into a place of dependence on God.
Make the Message Relatable
Often when sharing the gospel with people of different cultural contexts, it’s easy to get caught up in ‘Christianese’ speak.
But what would it look like if we made the message of the gospel more relatable and easily understood?
There are certain things we all share as human beings; among them a desire to be known, loved, and valued. But so too there are aspects of Christ’s gospel that speak to each of us in different ways. For those living in want, Jesus as the bread and water of life are powerful metaphors. For children who’ve suffered some form of abandonment, the notion of God as a devoted, faithful father is equally as redemptive.
As we desire to deliver the gospel far and wide, we must learn to show the ways that the message speaks to them specifically. How does it fill the empty space in their heart? How does it challenge their preconceived notions of the divine? How does it speak truth into and transform their life?
The gospel is powerful, but so too are the ways we deliver it to people. Let’s learn to share it through relationships, with understanding, and accessibility. Check out our latest resource, Our Gospel Story, to help you get started.
Ed Stetzer, an Outreach magazine contributing editor, holds the Billy Graham distinguished chair of church, mission and evangelism at Wheaton College and the Wheaton Grad School, where he also oversees the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. This article originally appeared on The Exchange.