A little over a year ago, me and three other friends got to sit down in a restaurant with a pastoral leader. By leader, I mean one of the best leaders I’ll ever share a meal with. Once we all had our fried food and drinks of choice, he got the ball rolling--“So what do you want to ask?”
To be honest I’m not good in these moments. Maybe the greasy food was clogging the gears or I just draw blanks when I’m with people whose opinions matter to me. Romans 7:24, right?
Fortunately, someone spoke up. “What do you like to read?” His answer is what I want to focus on for the next few hundred words. He said, “I read a lot of theology, but I spend time reading business and politics as well. A lot of the people that I spend time with and serve are businessmen. So I like to read in that genre to be aware of what they are talking about and going through.”
Think about that. He takes time to read information about a field that he doesn’t work in. I don’t know about you, but time is precious, and reading takes a lot of it. If I’m going to read something, I’d rather read about things that interest me: like the Bible, Harry Potter, fitness, the Premier League…not business.
But he had a reason and that reason was people. This leader took time out of his busy day to understand the livelihood of the people who lived in his area. Why does this matter?
This matters because I am a sinner, but I am a sinner forgiven and transformed by God’s gift of grace and mercy through Jesus, because other people brought the gospel to me in my language. They took time to understand me and my interests so that I could really understand the Gospel. Some call this evangelism.
But not everyone agrees with evangelism. Our culture views it as coercion or imperialism. In some circles it results in insults, in others the loss of life. Looking at the lives of many Christians, you would think they too disagree with contextualized sharing of the good news.
But what we see in the in the New Testament through men like Paul, is not coercion and imperialism, but persuasion and cultural immersion—revealing the good news in ways that make sense through understanding their culture while at the same time showcasing the way of Christ by personally living the way of Christ with them.
For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. (1 Corinthians 9:19)
This verse is a three-part thesis statement for the verses that will follow. First Paul says he is free. How so? A broader reading of the letter and other letters by Paul show us three ways he and the Church are free:
• Paul is not enslaved to anyone's opinion. He lives in the approval of Jesus.
• Paul is not bound by any culture. He lives in the way of Jesus.
• Paul is not bound by sin. He lives free because of the forgiveness of Jesus.
Spend time thinking through those freedoms for like 10 seconds and what comes next should be intuitive and natural.
Second, Paul chooses to make himself a servant to all people. How so? Look at verses 20-22a.
That may turn you off. Maybe you think, “Just be YOU, Paul.” “What a fake.” “Paul is just a poser.” It’s like, “Show some spine Paul!”
But Paul isn’t adapting to the culture like the new kid from the city who switched from Jordan’s to boots because he just moved to the country middle school. Remember, Paul isn’t bound to the court of public opinion. He is living in the approval of Christ. The reason he adapts his message to fit the context is because third, he wants to win all. Check it out:
I don’t know about you, but I really like CrossFit. There’s something about the sound of a heavy barbell hitting the floor and normal folks cheering each other on that makes me happy. But, I don’t like it so much that I’d make it my full-time thing.
This past CrossFit Games I watched men and women who have, and boy are they incredible. What they can do is phenomenal. Every. Single. One. Of. Them. But, only one gets to stand on the podium at the end. This year it was a young man named Justin Medeiros.
Prior to the Games Justin did an interview where he said, “I’m not going to the games to compete, I’m going to the games to win.” That stuck with me.
Paul isn’t adapting the gospel to make for understandable sermons. Paul is adjusting major parts of his life, giving up everyday freedoms, so that people who are created in the image of God can hear the good news of what Jesus accomplished once and for all on the cross. Paul isn’t trying to compete, he’s serving to win.
He says, “I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings” (1 Corinthians 9:23).
Paul wants everyone, regardless of language, skin color, gender, race, socio-economic background, or neighborhood to have what he has. For Paul, and for EVERY Christian, there is only one prize in the work of Christ and it’s the introduction of the gospel to all people. Is this your goal?
For this goal to be your goal, you must first understand the blessing yourself. Ask yourself, is the Gospel good to me? Is it freedom? Is it peace? Is it unshakeable? Is it the best thing I’ve ever experienced? Is it worth selling yourself into slavery for? Is it worth dying for? Do you love it? No one can answer those questions but you.
Let’s assume that your answer to all those questions is yes, yes, and yes. Then, we have a goal that is worth curbing our freedom for. Something worth getting up early and going to bed late for. Something that conforms all other things in our lives to its image. Something that reflects the very motivation of Jesus.
Remember, Jesus is God. But Jesus didn’t come down and speak in a heavenly language. Instead, he spoke in human language. He didn’t eat heavenly bread; he ate fish caught by his disciples. Jesus became one of us. Did he have to do it? No!! He freely chose to do so. Why? Because we are limited in our understanding, and He loves us. Because Jesus chose to become one of us, we who believe have the freedom to make the same choice that He and Paul, and those who shared the gospel with us made.
So here’s what you can and should:
• Study the people in your context. What do they do? How do they think? What do they eat? What do they need? What are they missing? What are their stories?
• Then, take the truth, and answer those questions in a way that makes sense to them.
One final point: what makes our message so powerful is not how it is similar to the culture around us, but how it is different. Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind so that in everything you may know what is good, acceptable, and perfect.
As Alexander MaClaren says, “Make yourself as like them as you honestly can; restrict yourself of allowable acts, in deference to even narrow prejudices; but let the motive of your assimilating yourself to others be clearly their highest good, that you may ‘gain’ them, not for yourself, but for your Master.”
As we go from here to seek and save the lost, let these words from the writer of Hebrews be your strength: