When Paul said that he became all things to all men in order to save some,1 he set an enduring standard for missionary work. The Lord used Paul on numerous occasions to speak to magistrates, rulers, and influential people in the different regions he visited on his journeys. He also knew how to reach the common people and won many disciples from among them. By becoming one with people in the many different places where he worked and witnessed, he was able to successfully establish groups of believers and reach people of influence, who were in turn able to help him to spread the message even further.
If we’re truly going to become all things to all men, we have to be willing to tailor our presentation to the people we are trying to reach. Of course, when you’re reaching radical youth, you’ll want to come across in a way that will be appealing to them and will make it easier for them to engage with the gospel message. But when you’re reaching professionals or academics, you’ll probably need to tailor your approach accordingly to find common ground with them and engage them with your witness.
Closely related to becoming one is the importance of understanding and being sensitive to the local culture, especially when you are serving as a missionary in a foreign land. That takes being aware and respectful of the mentality of the people, their history, customs, traditions, national holidays, and cultural expectations. Being knowledgeable of their main religions and political system is also helpful and provides context regarding where they’re coming from, so as to be a more effective witness and also to avoid being offensive through ignorance.
It’s also wise to stay abreast of important news and events happening where you live, so that your words and your witness take into account issues of significance to your country. Ignorance of local customs and standards can alienate or offend others unnecessarily. Having an understanding of the local culture and the basic historical, geographical, social, and political facts regarding the country you live in will enable you to interact with people and understand the issues that matter to them, and will be perceived as a sign of respect for the culture.
The Lord expects us to do our part to be culturally sensitive to better relate to the people that He has sent us to witness to, to become one with them so that by any means we might win some. A genuine endeavor of identification with the local culture and becoming one with its people has proved to be vital to success for missionaries. The fact is that people will observe you closely to see if your actions match up with what you preach. Being mindful of cultural expectations of courtesy, conversation, and social norms along these lines is universally interpreted as a sign of respect and deference that can open doors to engaging people with the gospel.—Peter Amsterdam
Finding common ground
“I try to find common ground with everyone, doing everything I can to save some.”—1 Corinthians 9:222
Jesus wasn’t worried when others accused him of being a friend of sinners3 because he was doing exactly what the Father sent him to do: persuade men and women to make peace with God.4 Likewise, we’re to represent Jesus, speaking on his behalf to those still on the “outside.” Yet some of us are so isolated and disconnected from unbelievers that we rarely have any meaningful conversations with them. …
Jesus’ actions suggest that our witness to non-believers starts with friendship. We earn the right to share the gospel through relationship, where we show that we care about the person, not just baptism statistics. The apostle Paul encourages us to find common ground with nonbelievers. Finding common ground is an act of friendship; it guides us to look for the positive instead of the negative in those outside the faith.
When Jesus met the woman at the well, he pointed to what she and he had in common rather than the things he could rightfully condemn.5 As a result, she not only became friends with God, she brought her friends and family into the presence of Jesus.—Jon Walker
Searching for common ground with skeptics
In communicating with skeptics, start by agreeing where you can. You’ll get many more to listen. I call this approach “Advocacy Apologetics.” You’re approaching the person as an advocate rather than an adversary. You believe in some of the same things they do. Expressing agreement can penetrate emotional barriers and communicate that you are for that person rather than against them. It can make them more willing to consider areas of disagreement.
Don’t compromise biblical truth; but agree at the start where you can. Paul used this approach. He wrote: “I have become a servant of everyone so that I can bring them to Christ. When I am with the Jews, I become one of them so that I can bring them to Christ. … When I am with the Gentiles who do not have the Jewish law, I fit in with them as much as I can. … Yes, I try to find common ground with everyone so that I might bring them to Christ. I do all this to spread the Good News….”6
Here’s an experiment: The next time you encounter someone who differs with you, take a deep breath. Pray. Ask God to help you identify three areas of agreement. Can’t find three? How about one? Discuss that first. Become an advocate for them. Maybe you’ll oil some stuck emotional and intellectual gears and nudge someone in His direction.—Rusty Wright7
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