TODAY’S POST IS AN EXCERPT OF WHAT YOU WILL FIND IN THE TRADECRAFT WORKBOOK, WHICH IS DESIGNED TO PRACTICALLY GUIDE YOU & YOUR COMMUNITY TO BE EQUIPPED TO UNDERSTAND AND PURSUE THE ESSENTIAL MISSIONARY SKILLS NEEDED FOR EVERY FOLLOWER OF JESUS.
How do you begin conversations about the gospel with friends, neighbors, and co-workers who are not Christians? Do you use a tool or resource, tell stories, or … ? How do you bridge the gap in conversation and turn it to spiritual matters?
“For His invisible attributes, namely, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.” These invisible attributes have great potential for our missionary efforts. Like every good story with a twist in its plot, it all makes sense in hindsight. God’s purposes, His presence, His faithful provision are much easier to see in light of salvation. Rather than having to introduce a foreign truth, missionaries take the opportunity to retell a people’s stories back to them from the Kingdom perspective.
In the Scriptures, cultural exegesis is referred to as “perception.” The word, translated from the ancient Greek word “to understand,” meant “insight based on observation.” Paul employed this very technique when he “perceived” that the citizens of Athens were devoutly religious (Acts 17:22- 33). He observed shrines, monuments, and temples to various gods, recognizing that even the Greek pantheon of god myths left people longing for more. Their vague memory of humanity’s connection to the Creator had led them to develop a dramatic mythology of gods behind everything they couldn’t explain. Just to be sure they hadn’t missed a god, they had erected at least one monument in honor of “the unknown god.”
Paul took advantage of this bridge into the culture. Rather than begin the conversation by confronting their blatant idolatry, Paul told the Athenians that he knew this God they were afraid of overlooking. The Greek worldview had room for an unknown god. Paul knew the God these people had “forgotten.” He proclaimed the gospel by telling the men of Athens their own story back to them in light of the gospel.
Name a time you have been able to use (or have seen) this sort of bridge into culture for gospel conversation.
Just as cultures have bridges that facilitate the spread of the gospel, they also have barriers to it. The rituals and superstitions that people revere in place of God often keep them from understanding Him. Recognizing these barriers can likewise inform our missionary strategies. Successful communication of the gospel requires that we navigate meanings, misperceptions, and deeply held ideologies.
A friend recently found himself in a deep spiritual conversation with a neighbor. The neighbor is spiritually agnostic and doesn’t believe that humans can know God, or even whether He exists. He remembers going to church a few times as a child, but he otherwise has no religious background. They spoke about the role of religion in society, and my friend tried to move the conversation from ritual and tradition to a personal relationship with Christ. You can imagine his surprise when the neighbor declared, “We Christians are responsible for committing many atrocities in the name of God.”
“We? Christians? I thought you weren’t religious,” my friend said, “maybe I misunderstood you?”
“Oh, I’m not,” his neighbor explained, “but I’m more Christian than Muslim.”
To his neighbor, Christian wasn’t a spiritual state or even a category of belief. It was a cultural label synonymous with western, enlightenment, American, and rational. He certainly understood there was a difference between my version of Christianity and his, but from his perspective my friend was the one co-opting the term from common American culture. According to him, we’re all Christians. In the United States, a major barrier to the spread of the gospel is the predominance of cultural Christianity. It’s difficult to declare the good news to people who greatly misunderstand it.
Cultures other than ours in America have different barriers to the spread of gospel. Societal prejudices, traditions, and ethnic tensions often prevent broad sowing of the good news. Some cultures lack even a basic spiritual vocabulary that allows for the meaningful communication of abstract concepts like God and Spirit. Imagine trying to teach someone about prayer, worship, heaven, or sin when they don’t have words for any of those things!
Despite the barriers a culture may present, we are called to communicate the transforming message of salvation in Christ alone. This requires we study culture in search of bridges that facilitate the spread of the gospel and the barriers that need to be overcome in order for disciples to be made. We refer to this process of intentional, hands-on research as cultural exegesis.