“I shared the gospel with someone tonight as I travelled through China”
Ah, good, I guess. Well done!
There are a few reasons why I’m never generally jumping up and down at such statements evangelism while travelling.
Well by “sharing the gospel” people from my circles generally mean this:
“whatever short summary of the good news they have rote-learnt from memory and just divulged over someone in six sentence summary format”
For everyone that will have limitations:
For many westerners, they come from cultures which delight in direct communication. Does my bum look big in this? Well, yes, yes it does (ok, that’s an extreme but…). “Telling it straight” to someone will evoke a sense of truth and in many, pride.
But to those who do not come from a “direct” culture, they are often deeply offended at such directness and pressing them to respond individualistically to a set of western-orientated presuppositions. Particularly when it is in front of a group – the honour of their intelligence, worldview, friendships and whole way of thinking could be at stake. It makes them recoil from even considering what the person is talking about, because the means embodying it is so shameful.
Many protestant cultures also are shaped by a guilt/innocence worldview where we describe our short summary in terms of God creating us, us doing wrong, feeling guilty, Jesus being innocent, Him taking our punishment, dying on a cross to make us forgiven and legally right before God, and Him coming back again for those who how have His righteousness. Other western ways of sharing things might be along the lines of “Two ways to live” or “Four Spiritual Laws” or others such thinking.
But what about someone who has never thought too much about guilt or innocence, but is steeped everyday in the shame of not living up to familial, social, and cultural expectations or is craving the honour of the elder person they really respect? That guilt/innocence presentation will have completely not connected with them, most likely. In fact, it might take them one step closer to thinking God has little to do with their life and problems.
Despite both of these, I would want to make two push back points:
Don’t let these negative experiences of short pithy gospel presentations push you into silence. So often I can be so judgemental of how others do things, that I never speak, or never thank God that He uses (and has used) me even in my frailest of moments and stupid actions, to work for His glory. Surely that is the Bible’s emphasis and should be our emphasis.
Gospel summaries are fab! And I encourage all my students to learn one or more, so that they can snappily summarise what they think and believe. It helped me spiritually, more than I’ve ever been able to share it! But like anything in life, they’re not the golden bullet. They all have weaknesses, all fail to convey lots, and depending on who you’re standing before can be (my old supervisor used to say,) like:
Frodo in the Lord of the Rings coming into an Ethiopian café when the football is on TV. He shouts “Come Celebrate with me!! The ring that was lost is now found and we are on our way again to Mount Doom where it can be destroyed and we can all be free! Join us on our journey.” To the Ethiopians, they have either no concept (or twisted ones) of all of those words/phrases, haven’t a clue what weird creature is excitedly speaking to them about this strange thing, and wouldn’t know what the journey looks like anyway. And so they go back to watching football on the TV.
You see, Christ’s Lordship cannot be communicated in six sentences! The everlasting and infinite God has chosen (in His wisdom) to reveal Himself using the frailty of human words, spoken into a particular culture at a particular time. He has done it at that length and meant to do it so, because He knows best.
And it’s wonderful. The fact that He is Lord means that regardless of what I am talking about or doing, that a gospel of His Lordship is hovering over it. I am as close to His Lordship as I am talking about brushing my teeth, as I am when I share my six sentence gospel summary. Because ultimately He is Lord over teeth-brushing! I am either doing it for His glory, or I am doing it from duty (good or bad) or legalistically doing it out of service to another god. He is returning to bring us to a land where no decay or tooth-brushing will be needed! Cheesey, but an example of how close things are to everyday situations that people can relate to!
So what does this look like in reality?
Well, let’s get this straight. I don’t want to say that we must learn every culture and their way of speaking and acting, so that we become experts to all cultures. Some gifted evangelists may think that’s what being “all things to all men” (2 Cor 9) is about but I think I disagree. It’s impossible. You can’t expect everyone to have cultural awareness of every culture. Perhaps to specialise in knowing one cultural background, maybe. But not that everyone will master everything. Why do I say this?
Well, in me moving to Cork, I was moving from a British guilt/innocence culture to an Irish shame/honour culture (not to the same extent as Middle Eastern, but still massively moreso than British). Now I have one of two choices: stay living in guilt/innocence culture, or try and get used to shame/honour culture. And whichever I choose, I will alienate others and resonate more deeply with some. It’s a choice that take a lot of time normally. But I can’t live out both worldviews, unless I segregate relationships and all of my life. I can be culturally aware of the clashes, but I cannot live both.
I am naturally inculturated.
I cannot sit above culture.
I am human.