The gospel of Jesus Christ is overtly offensive. The Bible is clear when it states that all have fallen short of the glory of God (Rom 3:23). We are guilty of breaking God’s laws and deserve punishment (Rom 6:23). The gospel states that no amount of self-trust, good works, or tradition will mend our broken relationship with God and carry us into the presence of God (Rom 3:20-22). The gospel is offensive because it states we are going the wrong way and need to turn around, which is not the most welcoming dinner table conversation.
The message outlined above is offensive to those who do not know Jesus Christ and his love for them—a message with statements that challenge or correct a culture’s or person’s various values or worldview, thus causing them to become upset or disinterested. We can cause offense by both the mode of presentation and the content of our message.
This does not mean, however, that we work to make the gospel more palatable by diluting the heart of the message. Evan Burns writes about contextualizing the gospel,
A missionary who is mainly seeking to relevantly contextualize the gospel might unintentionally change the gospel to fit in within the target cultural value system. But a missionary who is mainly seeking to rightly communicate the gospel will seek to understand the culture’s value system and language so he can clearly explain the original problem of guilt and corruption in Adam and the corresponding solution in Christ’s penal substitution atonement and imputed righteousness.
People need to know that they are not living right and are in need of a Savior. If this is not communicated, they have not heard the full gospel (1 Cor 15:3-5). The question then is: how do we proclaim an offensive gospel in cultures that value peace and tolerance?
First, let us define a peace-loving culture. Peace-loving cultures are communities that value maintaining harmony among individuals through respect, tolerance, and affirmation based on a set of beliefs established by the community.
People in such cultures will often avoid challenging others or telling someone that they are wrong, as this could break the harmony and cause offense. Note that this is not a reference to small everyday issues, but a challenge of deeper worldview-defining beliefs and ideas that may establish a person’s identity. People in these cultures, however, will challenge those who are disrespecting the peace-keeping expectations or communal held beliefs.
Conversations on evangelism are often polarizing. On the one hand, there are those who push for proclamation at any available opportunity with their reliable evangelism tool, which encourages telling the story of Christ and calling for a decision immediately. On the other hand, there are those who advocate for relational methods that prioritize deep friendships before any type of proclamation happens. The latter is usually chosen in peace-loving cultures.
However, I would like to argue that both proactive proclamation and deep relationships are integral to effectively sharing the good news. The two must be seen as concurrent elements rather than consecutive. It is not building relationships to hopefully get to the gospel one day, but building genuine relationships through the proclamation of the gospel, by word and deed.
This may seem counterintuitive in peace-loving cultures, but this proclamation may not always mean a full presentation. The whole story may not be communicated in one sitting, and that is alright, but we should be honest with what we believe when being asked or when there is an appropriate opportunity to share, especially in cultures that value authenticity in relationships. This sharing is critical for finding receptive people.
Sensitive sharing early-on in the relationship and investing in deeper friendships are both critical to building ‘plausibility structures’ to help us bridge the gap with people in peace-loving cultures. These structures are contexts, systems, or frameworks in which one’s beliefs are credible. These plausibility structures are a combination of a new set of beliefs and a new community, which are both essential to seeing transformation. Our aim should be providing the appropriate materials and blueprints for building a new structure. The materials could be defined as various beliefs, and the blueprint could include the communal framework and way of life to utilize the materials.
In my area of West Africa, many Muslims have never met or known a person who has converted from Islam to Christianity. Even if they have, the person would usually leave his Christian faith eventually because of communal pressure.
David Maranz, in his anthropological study of the peace-loving region of Senegambia, writes that ‘peace in the human spirit is the consequence of a condition of harmony between human beings and transempirical forces.’ This specific community will lack harmony within themselves, with others, or with higher forces if there is an offense. Someone can be excluded from the group entirely if they are denying the communal held beliefs; thus, they lose their entire support structure. That understanding gives little confidence for conversion when the gospel truth and the community are at odds with one another. It is almost impossible for them to see how they could ever accept this belief even if it bears clear logic. When we are engaging with these people, we should ask, ‘Is this information plausible in their mind regardless of its truth?’
The experience above can be true for those in the West too. For example, people in the Western United States will be more likely to surround themselves with those who affirm their personal identity, thus creating their plausibility structure for life which promises comfort, relationships, and overall purpose for life. They will not immediately switch to a new set of beliefs without the right materials and framework. The gospel is often offensive in these cultures because it challenges one’s journey towards self-actualization, which the community as a whole values. People want to have the space and freedom to become what they choose to be.
So how do we provide the materials and blueprint to build this new structure? Sharing parts of the gospel story sensitively early in the relationship is a critical step to this work. We do not need to unload the materials or force it upon our friends all at once. We are just laying the ground work, building the foundation. However, I would argue that clear proclamation at the beginning of a relationship allows us to establish a foundation, gauge where a person is in his or her pursuit of truth, and determine whom we can prioritize with our limited time and energy. This does not mean we ignore those who are not receptive. It challenges us to think of another framework we need to add for a specific person.
In conjunction with gospel proclamation, we can have pre-established communal opportunities for people. This is the blueprint. We can do this through our personal friendship groups by inviting people to our homes for a meal. Peace-loving cultures value hospitality, and environments like this allow us to break down different walls of perception. Community centers, for example, provide a neutral place for healthy conversations on various topics. We use Bible stories in our English classes in West Africa for discussion, although this may not be possible in more religiously restrictive or fundamentalist countries. Media, for example, will be very beneficial in more secure locations as people are often engaging with the gospel through the internet because it provides a safe space to explore things anonymously until they are ready. However, how one culture builds community will be different in every context.
This strategy does come with many challenges. It can be difficult to determine which pieces of the gospel we can share early without overwhelming our listeners. The process of finding comfortable communal opportunities can be arduous. Additionally, some may ask, ‘Which comes first, the sharing or the relationships?’ The answer is both need to be happening early and often. Lastly, this strategy does not ignore the fact that a person will have to take a step of faith to believe. We can help someone realize something is plausible, but that still does not mean they will commit their life to it.
Building plausibility structures is not a failsafe for proclamation and conversion. Work with peace-loving cultures is slow, and we should not expect instantaneous results. It is important we recognize the building blocks of tolerance, respect, and affirmation in peace-loving cultures because it will continue to challenge how we effectively proclaim an offensive gospel.
Ultimately, a person must see why it is beneficial to embrace a different set of beliefs at personal cost and interact with a new community. When they are able and happy to engage with our community of friends and their stories, then they will have a new blueprint or understanding for their gospel materials.
Evangelism is a process of building plausible structures to help people take steps of faith towards Jesus. These structures will be most useful for us to focus on already-receptive people and invite them into available communal opportunities. Deep relationship with them, accompanied by early proclamation, will give us the opportunity to introduce a better story when we effectively live what we believe and faithfully proclaim it.
Michael Hart (pseudonym) currently serves in a community center in West Africa that seeks to equip and mobilize the church while also providing a space for non-believers to explore questions of faith. He received his MA in Global Leadership from Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon (US). He formerly served in Portland as a church planting team member and pastor with the specific goal of equipping the body for evangelism and service within the community.