by John Sherwood
One of my teammates in the Philippines, anticipating his first furlough, worried that if some of his supporters really knew how we did ministry, they might drop him.
One of my teammates in the Philippines, anticipating his first furlough, worried that if some of his supporters really knew how we did ministry, they might drop him. Our strategy was so “foreign” to methods in the United States, so different from what he had been taught or had seen in American churches. Often the differences had to do with what we didn’t say, as we went about cultivating relationships with nonbelievers and seeking opportunities to present the gospel to them. Like good financiers, we wanted to use all the “credit” extended to us by our hospitable hosts, so that we could eventually present the gospel.
To explain what I mean by unbelievers “extending credit” to us as cross-cultural workers, let me set the stage by noting Paul’s concern about stumbling blocks. Paul wrote, “Do not cause anyone to stumble [be offended], whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God” (1 Cor. 10:32). The gospel itself is cause enough for stumbling (1 Cor. 1:23). If unbelievers are going to stumble, let’s make sure it is over the gospel, the nonnegotiable minimum, instead of over secondary issues. Let’s avoid any style or technique that offends people, in order to give them a chance to hear the gospel fairly and openly. Let’s not needlessly throw stones in the path of dying men and women. What are some examples?
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
For our ministry in the Philippines, some traditional missionary terms and methods caused offense by providing convenient brushes for our opponents to paint us as the “enemy.” By contrast, use of neutral terminology blocked such knee-jerk responses. We found it helpful to avoid spiritual clichés, such as “receive Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior,” and create new expressions for such familiar truths. In so doing we were simply following the example of Scripture, which uses a great variety of terms for such things. For belief, we see in Scripture the terms trust, receive, accept, come, drink, eat, and believe. The neutrality and variety of the terms we used allowed uncommitted searchers to associate with us comfortably, because they didn’t place us in a category that their culture had already branded.
When our missionaries first established a work in the southern Philippines, it was a “Baptist” church. However, it was not long before they realized that this extra- biblical term was scaring many away. Although the name Baptist may be culturally acceptable in the United States, in some parts of the Philippines it is put in the same category as aggressive cults such as Jehovah’s Witnesses. A businesswoman explained to me that Baptists were seen as trying to get people to change religions and join their group, before revealing who they really were. Facing such cultural resistance, the missionaries changed the name of Calvary Baptist Church to Christian Bible Church.
Other similar stumbling blocks for us included the terms “Protestant,” which is identified with a largely decadent denomination in the Philippines, and even “born again,” a term that for a while was identified with a group that supposedly paid 50 pesos to anyone who would be baptized. We called our church services “fellowships,” and introduced ourselves as “Bible teachers” or “Bible Christians,” not as missionaries from any particular denomination. Our goal in avoiding all those “handles” was to avoid shutting the door of the gospel to any of our hearers.
Another area of cultural adaptation relates to exactly what and how much a person needs to understand in order to trust Christ as his or her Savior. Each culture has its unique moral and spiritual problems, and these all need to be addressed. But we don’t necessarily need to address them in each person’s life before he or she becomes a believer. In the Philippines, we faced issues such as idolatry, Mariolatry, and many superstitious practices such as sympathetic magic. If we had aggressively denounced all such practices in our evangelism, the gospel would never have been heard.
Some would call this intellectual dishonesty, and wouldaccuse us of holding back important truths. I prefer to think of it as presenting those truths at the time of optimum receptivity, when the hearer has already understood the more foundational truths. Do we ever teach integral calculus to one who hasn’t learned the lessons of algebra? Did Jesus condemn drunkenness whenever he attended a party, or attack immorality whenever he encountered a prostitute? Likewise, we found these secondary issues much easier to face after a person’s spiritual eyes had been opened by the gospel. This does not mean, of course, that we evaded such issues if specific questions were asked.
Sometimes we may even need to exercise restraint in our initial presentation of the gospel. One missionary new to our ministry advised me that we should just ask people “up front” if they wanted to study the Bible, and if they refused, we should drop them and seek others. This up-front invitation, however, could permanently close doors which would be hard to ever reopen. In fact I made it a custom, when meeting someone whom I believed I would see again, not to share the gospel immediately unless he or she directly asked about it. Rather, while working aggressively at building a relationship, I trusted that God would open the channels of communication and friendship that would eventually permit a more meaningful witness. Often a year of such relationship building would pass before spiritual things were discussed.
EARNING MORE CREDITS
So what do stumbling blocks and cultural sensitivity have to do with earning “gospel credits”? A short-termer on our field explained to me that each unbeliever gives us a certain number of “credits” before he or she turns us off. In pro-Western countries like the Philippines where hospitality is highly valued, those credits are many. Yet unnecessary stumbling blocks can consume the credits quickly. We must still make sure we are wise in how we use our credits. The longer we are able to hold onto them, the greater will be our chance of building that relationship of trust which will open the inner spiritual doors.
In confirmation of our efforts to contextualize our message, we have often overheard members of our Bible studies telling their friends that we were not pushing some particular group or religion, but were just teaching the Bible for any who wanted to learn. Our words exactly! These people felt they could be a part of what we were doing without having to identify with culturally unacceptable ideas that were nonessential to the gospel.
If we spend our credits foolishly on nonessential issues, the door will already be closed when we present the gospel. If we cause people to stumble or be offended, our gospel witness will be viewed through tainted glasses. For the gospel’s sake, we must examine our vocabulary, our style, and our methods, eliminating any nonessential stumbling blocks.
We must use our gospel credits wisely.
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