The United States is a melting pot of cultures and worldviews. Migration brings thousands of Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists to cities all around the country every year. This trend continues while agnosticism, atheism and apathy marks the worldview of many Americans.
For Western Christians, being a witness for Christ in a religiously plural society is no longer a foreign missionary challenge. In the midst of a melting pot of faiths, Christians must learn how to adapt in their evangelistic efforts.
The first generation Hindu immigrants who frequent your local park have different assumptions about issues of sin and salvation than those of the postmodern college student who works at your local coffee shop.
Christians in such a diverse context must learn to show how the gospel speaks to each of these differing worldviews. Evangelistic adaptability can be developed in the following four ways:
- Listen to the person’s story.
Whatever religious context you face in evangelism, listening is crucial. Listening conveys a person’s value as one who is uniquely made in the image of God. Asking good questions helps one understand two major issues — what is most important to the person (the object of their devotion) and the story that person tells themself in order to explain reality.
Ask questions about the person’s hometown or country, family, cultural holidays, hobbies, passions, and future goals. For example, you may say “Tell me the story behind your festival or holiday.” A natural follow-up might be, “That’s interesting. Are you a devotional kind of person? Tell me about your devotional life.”
A concrete type of question is often better than a theoretical one such as, “What do you believe about God?” Listen intently to how the person describes their views of God, humanity and the stories embedded in their devotional practices. You are not only listening for cognitive beliefs. Religious traditions, experiences and societal values communicate just as much about a person’s worldview as does their intellectual beliefs and convictions. You can then naturally begin sharing your own story of meeting Jesus and then share the story of Jesus.
- Remember the essentials.
In order to share the story of Jesus (i.e. the gospel), it’s often natural to introduce it by sharing your own story of how you became a follower of Jesus. When sharing the gospel, keep in mind some essential elements, such as God, creation, sin, Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, and the need for repentance and faith. The four-fold model of the Bible’s grand narrative as creation, fall, rescue and restoration is also helpful. Another approach is to answer the following four questions in your gospel presentation: Who is Jesus? What has Jesus done? Why is Jesus important? How should we respond?
The ideal evangelistic encounter will include all of these elements. Don’t be discouraged if you are only able to share aspects of the gospel in conversations with lost people. Any attempt at sharing Christ is not a vain activity. However, these essential elements can serve as foundational components for any contextualized gospel conversation.
- Respond to their story with the story of Jesus.
Once you have given a genuine ear to listen and learn about the other person, keep in mind what you learned as you speak about the story of the gospel. Responding to their story with the story of Jesus.
For example, if the person shares that their family is the most important thing in the world to them, it can be helpful to include Abraham’s story of how God used his descendents to spread the good news of salvation and bless all the families of the world. Perhaps the festival that’s important to them has aspects of the gospel embedded within it. Use those elements to connect them to the gospel.
For example, the Hindu festival Diwali is about light conquering the dark. You can highlight the fact that Jesus calls himself the light of the world. You are not claiming that Jesus is the fulfillment of their festival. Instead, you’re taking a familiar concept (light vs. dark) and connecting it to the biblical message.
Contextualizing the gospel is not making the gospel more relevant. The gospel already is relevant. Our job is to show how the gospel is relevant. We do this best when we listen well and then apply the gospel to what we learn about a person. However, this is difficult to do in the first conversation. That’s why there is one more principle for learning adaptability.
- Walk alongside them moving forward.
Don’t just share Christ with a person one time. Follow up with them. Evangelism should not be a one-and-done approach. Jesus called us to make disciples, which involves investing time in people.
As long as an individual is willing to talk, continue to process the gospel with them. We describe this as “walking” because it’s a process and it’s a relationship that is moving in a direction — toward faith in Christ.
People who have very little exposure to a biblical worldview, such as Hindus and Muslims, need time to process everything. This involves getting them in the Scriptures as much as possible. Let the Holy Spirit use His sword on their hearts. Let them see how Christ is truly alive and working in your own life. Help them meet other believers and witness the love of God in the body of Christ.
We also describe this as “walking alongside” because we are not in a position of authority over them. You are letting the Word of God serve as the authority as you continue to listen and learn about the person. Walking alongside others is how we can best learn to apply the gospel in a variety of cultural settings.
Contextualization in gospel ministry is best learned in relationships with people. Listen to them, remember the revealed faith, apply the gospel to their life, and walk alongside them towards Christ.