For The Sake of The Gospel
For The Sake of The Gospel:
Taking our fervor for missions to other nations and applying it to our own culture.
BY TANNER TRIBOULET
Some of the most exciting worship services in the Christian church are those when a missionary visits and tells all the exciting and fruitful ventures they have had on the mission field. We hear about the extensive training they received, learning the ins and outs of the culture they entered. We are encouraged to hear of a flourishing ministry in the face of indescribable opposition, a dramatic fulfillment of the Great Commission in Matthew 28.
Recently, I heard a missionary couple recount their experience at one such service. They shared about the thousands of converts to Christianity and over one hundred churches planted. Pastors were being trained, buildings were constructed, and lives were being changed forever. All of this had taken place in a country where it is illegal for them to be if they had not entered under the guise of a legitimate occupation. While that occupation kept them relatively safe, they told us how every day they were prepared to be arrested, tortured, and/or killed because they're true purpose was to bring the hope of Jesus Christ in a country that does not tolerate such messages. They said these things with such a matter-of-fact expression that barely portrayed any kind of fear or regret. Instead, they excitedly talked about the unique aspects of the culture that offer both advantages and disadvantages in communicating the Gospel. They found creative ways to communicate the Gospel so that culture would best understand it without ever changing or compromising the Gospel in any way.
If you have spent time in the Christian community, you have probably heard comparable stories from missionaries; stories that we celebrate and become excited about. We celebrate the fruitful ministries and the preparation that took place beforehand. We celebrate that they learned the culture so well that they knew how they would best understand the Gospel without compromising Scripture.
But why don’t we have this same perspective about our own mission field in America?
I have noticed more of a negative view of our mission field and a lack of fervor in reaching those in our own backyard. Some of it comes from a genuine attempt to distance ourselves from the culture around us — to not be influenced by the sinful ways of the world as we are called in passages like 1 John 2:15-17 Romans 12:1-2. Scripture is clear that the things of this world and its practices are not how believers should pattern their lives: they are both temporal and contrary to God’s very nature.
But are we taking it too far and urging one another to be so different from the culture around us that we forfeit even sharing the Gospel with those around us?
I often hear stories of Christians who have become so disgusted with our surrounding culture that they have opted out of experiencing it as much as is possible. Some go so far as to condemn believers and non-believers alike for participating in culture in any manner. Some have separated themselves so far for so long that they have no idea how those in the midst of that culture actually think or live. They finally become incapable of sharing the Gospel with a culture they can no longer understand. They lose a passion and understanding that those they may be disgusted by need the grace and hope of Jesus Christ just as much as they do.
How can we celebrate studying and learning the culture in order to further the Gospel overseas yet at the same time dig our heels in to learn the culture right here where we live? How can we celebrate the preparation a missionary to China undergoes while refusing to do the same thing in our own neighborhood, city, or country? Is there no middle ground here? Can we not also learn the ways that our own surrounding culture thinks while not being influenced to live in sin like it does? Could this learning not help us better communicate the Gospel?
I believe Scripture teaches us something very important about this in many passages.
One of these is found in Acts 17:15-34. Having been run out of both Thessalonica and Berea, Paul traveled to Athens. Upon his arrival, he was very distressed by the rampant idolatry of the culture there. Instead of only going to the synagogue where there were Jews and Greeks who at least believed in God and had a reasonable moral compass, he also went into the marketplace day after day. In the marketplace, Paul began to learn and reason with whoever happened to be there. Eventually, this led to Paul finding an empty altar next to their many idols that read, “To an unknown god.” Instead of responding by removing himself from those people, he capitalized on the fact that they believed in an unknown God. He used this to tell them about God, Yahweh, who was unknown to them. Because of this effort to understand this culture while not being influenced by the rampant idolatry, he was able to communicate an uncompromised Gospel in a way that those specific people would understand. Some certainly sneered at this proclamation, but others actually believed and followed Paul to learn more.
As a follower of Christ, we are often naturally at odds with our surrounding culture. We cannot expect the world to hold the same values, morals, or beliefs that we hold because of Scripture and who Christ is in our lives. But our response to this natural difference from our surrounding culture should not be to isolate ourselves from the world. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 5:9-11, that isolating ourselves from the sinful world around us would require us to leave this earth completely. Our response to this natural difference should be to become a missionary to our own culture. Our response should be to learn about our culture, the way people think, the way they live, what they are motivated by. When we understand these things, we can better communicate the timeless gospel in a way that they can better understand it.
To take Paul’s example means to become learners of the culture around us, to learn about our neighbors, to learn about our co-workers, and to learn about our families. In this learning, we will find things like the unknown god in Athens that will open the doors for explaining the hope of Jesus Christ to people who might otherwise not understand or even oppose this hope.
This takes effort and intentionality. But when the truth of Scripture declares that people without Christ are dying all around us without eternal security, effort and intentionality are simply a response to our relationship and understanding of Christ.
I have found recent success in joining a Facebook group for my city. It is full of negativity and vice but has been one of the most informative tools for my wife and me in knowing how our surrounding community thinks. Other simple things like keeping up on a few current YouTube channels and Netflix shows that do not contain overly perverse content have been instrumental in keeping us current on how different groups in our American culture think. These are simple examples of how to be learners of our culture, and many of us already participate in these things. It could be as simple as being more intentional learners of the things that we already watch and see on a daily basis.
If you are a follower of Jesus, you are a missionary. Learn the language of your culture and watch how God uses you to effectively communicate the greatest story ever told.