In 1 Corinthians 9:19-22, the Apostle Paul describes his method of reaching the Mediterranean world with the Gospel.
NRSV 1 Corinthians 9:19 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.
Paul describes an outreach strategy that modern thinkers would describe as contextual or indigenous. Paul worked to offer Christ to persons in terms of their own culture and thinking. Paul’s encounter with Greeks on Mars Hill is a classic example of this strategy. Paul’s conversation with a group of people on the Areopagus is recorded in Acts 17:16-34. He uses one of the Athenian’s own religious altars—one ascribed “To an Unknown God” as a vehicle for the proclamation of the good news about Jesus. In other words, Paul attempted to use some aspect of his target audiences own culture and belief system as a starting point or doorway into a conversation about Jesus Christ.
At least on the surface, most of us gravitate toward Paul’s strategy of “becoming all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” If we wish to live an evangelistic and missional lifestyle, there is much to learn here. This is a key element to learning to speak human.
For me, there is a key question: How does one embody such a mission strategy and stay true to the Gospel? Common answers such as, “I just follow Jesus” (though true) do not quite cut it because they are overly simplistic. In order to be the sort of persons who can follow in the footsteps of Paul and his co-workers (let alone the footprints of Jesus), we need to be profoundly touched by God. We need to be so rooted in God’s character that we are capable of adapting ourselves to new challenges, structures, and circumstances without losing the substance of who we are in Jesus. This means that deep character is more important than surface character.
Have you ever heard the phrase, “The clothes make the (wo)man.” In my thinking, this is completely backwards. If we want to be adaptable so that God can use us to reach the many, then we need to embody an ethos in which “the man [or woman] makes the clothes.”
This is not easy. It is even dangerous. In fact, Paul immediately follows up the above text with two strong warnings:
1) Paul uses an athletic metaphor to describe the seriousness of the danger:
NRS 1 Corinthians 9:24 Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. 25 Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. 26 So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; 27 but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.
Those of us who wish to reach out with God’s love to all persons need to realize the level of commitment necessary. Just as the athlete must continue her or his training to stay on top, so must we who follow Jesus be intentional and consistent in the nurturing our own relationship with God. To be an elite athlete requires a commitment to a training regimen that empowers the athlete to improve performance over time.
2) Then, in chapter 10 of 1 Corinthians, Paul reminds his readers of the unfaithfulness of Israel despite the fact that the Israelites were eyewitnesses of incredible acts of God.
The lesson is clear: our past history with God is no guarantee of our future faithfulness. Reflecting on Israel’s past tendency to be unfaithful in spite of God’s faithfulness, Paul warning in 1 Cor 10:14 “If you think you are standing strong, be careful that you don’t fall.”
The conclusion is this: our own personal holiness cannot be separated from the mission that God calls us to fulfill. Character matters. When the character of Jesus truly resides in us, we can adapt ourselves to new contexts and God will use us to reach others who desperately need the good news that is found only in Jesus. If we follow Jesus boldly, he will lead us into the darkest places in the world so that we can serve as light as Jesus shines through us.
1) How adaptable am I to new situations?
1) How adaptable am I to new situations?
2) Am I more likely to be influenced by culture or to influence the culture for good?
3) What habits do I keep that help to nurture my soul and replenish me so that I am ready to reach out and serve others?
4) Reflect on your own understanding of the relationship between a missional lifestyle and personal holiness.
© 2006 Brian D. Russell, Revised 2016.
My latest book (re)Aligning with God: Reading Scripture for Church and World offers reflections on how to read Scripture in light of God's mission to bless all people.