Effective missionaries adapt the Gospel, they don’t impose it

Missionaries in current events

It’s not every week that a top headline involves the work of a missionary, so when it does my ears perk up. This last week or so, the dialogue has been about a commissioned missionary who was sent to the North Sentinel island, and actually killed by the people there. There’s been a wide range of reactions to his death; some saying he got what was coming to him, others suggesting that he was a martyr. A few people have asked me to comment on it, but I refrained largely, other than sympathizing with everyone involved. But I really liked Ed Stetzer’s piece in the Washington Post on the matter, so if you want more, I suggest starting there.

One of the reasons I didn’t comment is because I see the work of missionaries much differently than many of my Christian brothers and sisters. While many of us apply the Great Commission (Matthew 28) similarly, I’ve found that there is an odd distinction between “evangelism” (which is usually local) and “mission” (which is usually global). I do not make this distinction, for two reasons: 1) I think every Christian should see themselves as on a mission for Jesus, and 2) I believe that the distinction between local and global is just a matter of cultural intelligence and consciousness of our own out-of-placeness in the world.

Let me unpack that second point a bit more. We need to be out-of-the-world enough to know that we do not belong here. The best environment for a Christian is in prayer and communion with God. That is when we are truly “at home.” But it is incumbent upon Christians to become familiar with their time and place, at home in it, so as to evangelize. Our approach to evangelism, in a sense, shouldn’t be different place-to-place because we are adapting the Gospel to our context, as opposed to imposing it.

Christ and Culture

The paragraph above alludes to some work with regards to Christ and Culture. H. Richard Niebuhr wrote a book called Christ and Culture which offers us five different views on confronting the world, so to speak. If you want, you can read the entire text or just Google it for a series of great infographs. But the gist is this:

  1. Christ against culture (antithesis): Christians protect themselves from culture. They need to make a radical break from their culture.
  2. Christ and Culture in paradox (dualism): Christians are unchanging in the fact of culture. They live in the world, but are oblivious to it; they rest on tradition and faith while waiting for God’s kingdom.
  3. Christ, Transformer for Culture (conversion): Christians influence culture. They should convert and redeem all of culture for the glory of God.
  4. Christ above culture (synthesis): Christians live in both realms and try to bring them together so that Jesus can reign.
  5. Christ of culture (equates): Christians find in Christ the high ideals for their cultural life and values.

Niebuhr lays out a variety of views here, and as usual, none of them express our relationship to culture perfectly. It’s hard to read them, for me, and not see some good sense in all of them. There are certainly parts of culture that I prophetically oppose. There are parts of culture that I am indifferent to, in fact, unaffected by—our alternative is often done despite the culture. There are parts of culture I am working on transforming too. And parts of culture that we’re reconciling with, and finally finding Jesus in.

The missionary, in my view, holds on to all of these in her hands, figuring out what and how to apply them given their time and place. I think we need to keep bringing the Gospel to the present with great flexibility, letting it adapt to culture and change culture, as we discern.

Paul was the master missionary

For inspiration, no missionary beats the Apostle Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, who seemingly miraculously spread Christianity (which started as an odd offshoot of Judaism) to Greek people, turning their whole world upside down. He does it through adaptation without compromise. He masterfully navigates fitting the content of Christianity into new containers. That little trick is exactly what a good evangelist and a good missionary does.

This is how he tells it to the Corinthians.

19 For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. 21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.

Paul is under no obligation to adapt to the culture (a faith without obligation or coercion is elemental to his theology), but he does so out of service and humility to the people around him. He’s like a chameleon, adapting to his environment, in order to introduce Jesus to it. I admire his amazing ability. I think you need to read Paul this way, and if you don’t, you fail to read him correctly. Paul is often writing descriptively and not perspectively. Don’t do what Paul says, do what Paul does (in fact, read the whole Bible that way: ask “what does the Bible do?” versus “what does the Bible say?”).

Here, Paul is saying that he can freely act like a strict Jew or a free Gentile and still share the Gospel. He’s not bound to some rule-based faith, nor is free from the rule of Christ, but he can flex and adapt to help people follow Jesus. And he does it so that he might save some. This is why he circumcises Timothy as he ministers to Jews, and while he spares Titus as he serves the Gentiles. He flexes according to his culture. And that’s exactly what a good missionary does: they adapt, they don’t impose. They seamlessly fit the Gospel into the culture and transform people from the inside-out.

In Athens

You can see him doing this actively in Athens, in Acts 17. This is a favorite passage of mine. Paul is running away from the Thessalonians who want to kill him and while he does, he ends up holding court in Athens with the competing philosophers. The man is so adept in the philosophy of his day that he uses an unusual inscription he finds (it says, “to an unknown God”) to claim it for Jesus and to win over the stoics, epicureans, and cynics with whom he debates. He uses their own poetry to describe Jesus, the one in whom “we live and move and have our being.”

Paul adapts the Gospel to the culture. I am afraid Christians are often like bulls in China shops, or just the opposite. They either engage in culture wars (are we arguing about the Starbucks holiday cups yet)? Or they simply adapt to culture, so that you can’t tell the difference between a Republican and an Evangelical or a Democratic and a Mainline Christian. They take Niebuhr’s set of options and put them to the extreme.

Tertullian famously said that the blood of martyrs is the seed of the church. It’s true that sometimes those in power will be so threatened by the Gospels that they will kill you and you will suffer for Jesus. In the United States, our transformation of culture might result in that hostility. But I do not think we need to welcome that hostility as if it is a badge of honor.

Our primary purpose should be in helping people follow Jesus, and doing it effectively. What the aforementioned missionary accomplished in the North Sentinel Island, God’s peace be with him, is probably a setback for our cause. As wrong as they are, the polarized culture we live in, polarized this issue again. Now we have to decide whose side we’re on.

We need to be on everyone’s side adapting to them as they adapt to Jesus. The missionary then is an expert in discerning the difference between content and container. Between the container of the culture and the content of the Gospel. We intend to take all good things from the cultures we find ourselves in while not sacrificing the Gospel while we do that. That sort of gentle approach might actually save some lives: those whose clumsy actions might lead to their death, but also those who might receive transformation from Jesus himself.

My commitment is to Philadelphia. My goal is to discern how to help Philadelphians follow Jesus. So I am, indeed, trying to become all things to all people, like Paul. I’ve been a Philadelphian for fifteen years. This is where I’m called; this is where my mission is; it’s where I’m a missionary. I’m working on adapting and flexing the Gospel to work here. I want to learn more and I want to listen more. I need your help. Call me up.

*Note: Art above credited to French street artist 3TTman, “First Station: Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane,” 2010

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