‘Go and make disciples of all nations, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I will be with you always, even until the very end of the age.’ These are the words of the Great Commission, Jesus’ challenge to all Christians to spread the gospel and make disciples. But how should we reach ‘all nations’ and how can we make sure we stay true to the Bible while doing so? In a nutshell, how relevant is too relevant?
We should start with 1 Corinthians 2:2 where Paul says that he is committed to preaching ‘Jesus Christ and him crucified’. No human wisdom or fine arguments but purely the message of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Here is a strong call to make sure that the content of our evangelism is purely the work of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. However, we live in a culture where people don’t often have a working knowledge of concepts like ‘justification by grace alone through faith alone’, ‘atonement’ or even ‘grace’. How should we present these, often strange, ideas?
Many times throughout the New Testament, Paul adjusts his manner of preaching in order to best reach the culture he’s in. When talking to Roman high-ups in Acts 26 he uses the language of obedience, order and discipline. When talking to the Greek deep-thinkers in Acts 17, he references their worship practices and even their own poets, the Ancient equivalent of Kanye (or whoever’s in the top 40 now). When talking to fishermen, Jesus used fishing imagery to convey his message (Matthew 4:19), when he was talking to farmers, he used stories about fields and harvest (Luke 8:1). However how can we do this without describing Jesus as ‘the perfect Batman’ or something like that?
If we look at how Paul addresses the Greeks, we see that he uses flash points that the culture recognises to strongly and uncompromisingly present the message of the cross from within a framework they would understand. He starts with a practice they would all have recognised, god-worship (note the small G). He then makes a gospel point, God is far too mighty to be a figure but, despite this, still made us so we might have a relationship with him. He then demonstrates that they already know this to be true. One of their own poets has already written what he’s just told them! One of your own! He finishes by driving home the need for repentance and trust in Jesus’ resurrection.
This then is one way that Paul models how to present the uncompromised gospel truth to a culture that previously doesn’t understand it. He takes areas in the current culture that are already well accepted, understood and widely participated in. He describes how this demonstrates a need for the real truth, the real hope, the real rest that only Jesus can off AND uses cultural references to demonstrate that they, deep down, already know they have this need. He then finishes off by presenting the saving message of Jesus so that they can receive what they have been missing out on their whole lives. Here Paul demonstrates how to use culture as a framework for presenting completely alien ideas, a framework that allows us to be relevant without watering down the unchanging message of our great Saviour.