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09 June 2010

Evangelism in the 21st Century (1): God's Message, Our Context

And Jesus came to them and spake unto them, saying, "All authority hath been given unto me in heaven and on earth. Go ye therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I commanded you: and lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world" (Matthew 28:18-20).

Thus Jesus commissioned His Apostles and His followers after them to preach the Gospel throughout the world. Each generation of Christians is called upon to evangelize the world with the message of Christ. As we now move into the 21st century, how do we best go about presenting the message of Christ and Him crucified to our society? How can we present God's message in a way relevant to citizens of the 21st century? These are critical questions, and much hangs in the balance. Let us consider our current context, particularly the different types of persons we see in our society today, and look to God's Word for guidance on how to show them the light of the Gospel.

As we look around the world around us, we are confronted with an often dizzying array of people believing all sorts of things. We can develop some spectra based on certain characteristics that may be of value in our analysis.

Spectrum of belief/conviction. There are still some in our world who believe strongly in a religion, be it Christianity or something else, and who have devoted themselves to understanding their belief system and can well defend it. There are many more, however, who have a more nominal belief system-- they have a bit of understanding of what they believe, perhaps, but not much. Many more may attend a church and not even know what it teaches; they go because they always have gone or think they need to go to a church and that one is it. A large segment of the population profess belief but have little knowledge of the basic ideas of that belief, let alone go to church or an such thing. Many have no belief more out of a lack of concern or care for spiritual things. Finally, of course, there are those who claim no religious belief and act militantly against any such expression of belief.

Spectrum of participation. Likewise, there are some who are very active in their religious systems and devote their lives to that particular cause. Many are willing to participate whenever they have spare time to do so but do not actually devote their lives to the belief system. Many more are willing to present the external elements so as to appear as if they participate but do little else. Many others participate very little in terms of religious belief, and plenty out there have no participation whatsoever.

Spectrum of attitude. There are many who believe that all belief systems lead to the same source and therefore there can be no condemnation. There are many who have a view of the love of God that prohibits any idea of negative judgment. There are many who will find value in certain beliefs but believe that some belief systems will lead to condemnation. There are many who believe in a given religious system (like Christianity) and believe that most groups within that system are fine but not other religions. There are some with a more particular view of what it means to be part of a given religious system that exclude others. Finally, there are many who have no use or value for anyone outside their own system.

These are just some of many different spectra that we could consider in this context. While it would be nice and convenient for us to have simply one spectrum upon which to plot all persons, such is not feasible in our current world: we can find people who are on very different parts of the various spectra. How, though, can we apply this information and inform the way we promote the Gospel of Christ?

These spectra hopefully demonstrate that we are working with individuals who are rather different. We cannot expect to have any "one size fits all" approach that will be effective. Different people with differing belief systems, level of participation within those belief systems, and attitudes regarding beliefs will require different approaches. While 150 years ago we could assume common ground in belief in the Scriptures and in Jesus Christ, that assumption is no longer automatically valid. Yes, there are some members of denominations who know much about their faith and have an exclusive attitude with whom we can speak as we would in 1850, but such persons are now few and far between. These days, however, most people do not really know the Scriptures (even within the Lord's church, to our shame!). Many people are relatively unconcerned about the Scriptures, viewing them as a quaint novelty of a previous day. Most people who may have beliefs regarding Jesus may have an ecumenical outlook. We cannot forget, of course, that there are many people who profess atheism, agnosticism, or other religions like Islam or Hinduism. The vast bulk of the people, however, have very little knowledge nor concern about religion. If they went to church, it was when they were younger, and they most likely do not have too strong of any attachment to any system. Their belief has been shaped more by modern media than by religious instruction proper, and such persons end up being extremely confused about Christianity. How, then, can we work with so many different types of people?

We should not believe, however, that we are left without guidance within our twenty-first century context. As our society become more pluralistic and "tolerant," the more our society mirrors the first century society in which the Gospel was first promoted with great success. We can consider the example of Paul and how he approached different people in different contexts.

We begin in Acts 13:14-41. Paul is in Antioch of Pisidia in a synagogue of the Jews and proclaims the Gospel message (vv. 14-15). We see that his message is replete with citations and examples from the Old Testament. He appealed to the history of the people from Abraham through David (vv. 16-21), and appeals to the fact that Jesus is the descendant of David according to the promise (vv. 22-23). Paul appeals to John the Baptist, clearly known to these Jews, and his preparatory role (vv. 24-25). Paul then turns to the story of Jesus proper, how He was tried, executed, buried, and raised (vv. 26-31). Paul then says how God fulfilled the promises made through the psalms and prophets in the Christ, Jesus (vv. 32-37). He concludes by appealing for them to believe and warns against unbelief from the prophet Habakkuk (vv. 38-41; cf. Habakkuk 1:5).

We may also consider Acts 17:22-31. Paul is in Athens, a Gentile city; he is provoked by all the idols he sees, and begins presenting the Gospel (vv. 15-21). He begins by finding the common ground of religiosity, mentioning the altar "to the unknown god" (vv. 22-23). He establishes that this is the God whom he preaches to them-- this is the God who made the world, does not live in temples made with hands, and made all mankind from one nation to seek Him (vv. 24-27). He then quotes two Greek poets, Epimenides of Crete and Aratus, to demonstrate the truth of the matter (v. 28). He then concludes that this God is not to be seen in terms of an idol, something made by the hands of man, and implores his audience to repent, since God has overlooked their past ignorance and has established that there will be a judgment day, with the resurrection of Jesus as its assurance (vv. 29-31).

We see here two examples of preaching by the same man promoting the same message, and yet consider how differently the message is presented! Paul has not changed or compromised the message: he is simply attempting to communicate the message in a meaningful way to his particular audience. He established the common ground he could find with those to whom he preached: to the Jews, the Old Testament and its promise; to the Gentiles, a common concern for spiritual matters. To the Jews who believed in and highly respected the Scriptures Paul quoted and referred to them; to the Gentiles who could care less Paul used the same ideas present within the Scriptures but explained it using Gentile poets and in a way that Gentiles would understand.

We can easily apply Paul's example to our own day. If those to whom we preach the Gospel believe in the Scriptures, let us use the Scriptures in full to demonstrate God's truths. If the people have no concern about the Scriptures, let us use God's message, promote it in a way that they can understand, and thus lead them to the Scriptures. Work from the common ground so as to create more common ground-- that seems to be how Paul desired to promote the Gospel.

This article is not designed to provide specific answers as much as to stimulate thinking regarding these matters. How can we take Paul's example and apply it to our own circumstances? How can we promote God's message in our context? Let us strive to, as Paul, be "all things to all men" (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:19-23), so that we may lead some to salvation!

Ethan R. Longhenry
June 2007

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