In Paul’s first letter to the young church at Corinth he spells out a powerful principle which I believe should run through the core of every piece of evangelism (the way that “Blackpool” runs through the seaside rock of that wonderful town of cherished memory).
The principle is stated in the ninth chapter. Here it is in the NIV version.
“Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” (1 Corinthians 9:20-23)
The principle is often simplified as “All things to all people.” This is a reasonable summary, so long as you don’t take the summary for the explanation which Paul carefully gives in the paragraphs quoted above.
Paul is not condoning compromise, for example. He’s not suggesting that you use Christian worship centres to conduct Hindu weddings, or permit Christian leaders who have fallen into adultery to continue in their position without censure or, well, a thousand instances spring to mind. Please fill in the blank with any instance of over-toleration.
What would you think of a youth leader who felt it appropriate to use profane language because it was the language of the people he was trying to reach? Or a Christian rehab centre where the director used drugs himself to better understand the folks he worked with?
No, the line from the Message is very strong here: . “I didn’t take on their way of life. I kept my bearings in Christ.” That’s it. For God’s sake, (and your own) keep your bearings in Christ!
That means that you are called to holiness of heart and life. You are called to walk “circumspectedly” (as the old version puts it). You are called to consider carefully what you speak and where you go and what you do. This isn’t legalism! It’s simply a straightforward following of the way of Christ.
That said, we come at last to Paul’s principle of evangelism.
If you doubt how serious it is, then just consider this aspect: “To the Jews I became a Jew.” In one letter Paul stacks up all his Jewish credentials and then draws a line through the lot, saying it’s all a load of rubbish in comparison to knowing Jesus. It’s, literally, a mind-set of “rubbish” that needs carting away so that the truth can be properly seen. And yet, to the Jews I became a Jew. He was hounded by Jews, imprisoned and beaten. They made death-threats and he narrowly escaped with his life. He ended up spending many years in prison simply because of their machinations. And yet, “to the Jews I became a Jew.” Not compromising his own beliefs or doing some convoluted double-standard in his mind, but simply going as far as he possibly could to win them to Christ. . To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law.
He does the same with non-Jews: “To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law.”
He does the same with slaves: “Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.”
He does the same with outsiders, the vulnerable and the bereft: “To the weak I became weak, to win the weak.”
He sums it up: “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.”
But how far do you go with this? Does it mean: “To the Muslims I become a Muslim”? “To the gays I become gay”? Not quite, but close.
Here’s how the Message puts it: “Even though I am free of the demands and expectations of everyone, I have voluntarily become a servant to any and all in order to reach a wide range of people: religious, nonreligious, meticulous moralists, loose-living immoralists, the defeated, the demoralized—whoever. I didn’t take on their way of life. I kept my bearings in Christ—but I entered their world and tried to experience things from their point of view. I’ve become just about every sort of servant there is in my attempts to lead those I meet into a God-saved life. I did all this because of the Message. I didn’t just want to talk about it; I wanted to be in on it!”
“I entered their world.” “I tried to experience things from their point of view.” It’s what Jesus did in the incarnation, isn’t it?
And this is the challenge and the scope of real evangelism: to keep your “bearings in Christ” but at the same time to enter “their world” and to “experience things from their point of view.”
God give us grace to live that way. Otherwise, how will they hear?