One of the first things I did after finishing high school was to join a mission trip to the state of Tamilnadu in southern India.
On this trip, my group and I got to visit orphanages, see the formation of new churches and meet local missionaries who had toiled for years trying to spread the Gospel.
It was an exciting trip, but one thing that set this mission trip apart from others is that we weren’t allowed to evangelize or preach to any of the locals. All we could do was watch and observe local missionaries in action. This was because none of us belonged or could relate to the Tamil culture that we interacted with.
India is an incredibly diverse country with 22 official languages and over 2,000 ethnic groups; the Indian subcontinent is the most linguistically, culturally, and genetically diverse region in the world. My group and I could barely grasp mainstream Indian culture let alone the ethnic Tamil culture that we interacted with.
I had no idea of their context or their livelihoods. I had no understanding of India’s caste system that still permeates throughout parts of Indian culture. I couldn’t (and still can’t) speak Tamil or any of the other Indian dialects, and I had minimal understanding of Tamil cultural traditions.
As a result, any attempts at evangelizing to these communities would have been fruitless or detrimental to the Gospel work. If I had preached about God’s work in my life, I would have sounded like some billionaire talking to a homeless person about how great his private yacht is. I would have sounded arrogant and out of touch, and instead of bringing people closer to Jesus, I most likely would have turned them away.
On the other hand, with the local missionaries leading the ministry, I witnessed souls falling in love with Jesus and growing in their knowledge and passion for the Gospel. This ministry was effective because it was led by those who understood the context, those of a Tamil background who had belonged to the same social circumstances as the people they were ministering to. By contextualizing their message, they were able to reach a mission field that needed to hear about Jesus.
Like the Indian missionaries whom I met, Jesus understood the culture of His time and His community. For one, He became a human in order to reach humans. Jesus could have refused to take on human form, He could have sent angels instead, or He could have continued sending visions through prophets. But just like Tamil Indians would be unable to relate to a young Australian tourist, humans cannot relate to angels, or to an all-powerful God. Who would want to listen to a God who seems so distant and out of touch with the struggles of the world?
God knew that to effectively reach the lost world, Jesus had to become human so that He could relate to humans.
Throughout His ministry, Jesus described the Gospel as “living water” to those who were physically dehydrated, as “treasure in heaven” to investors and business people, and like fishing to those who were, you guessed it, fishermen!
Just like Jesus was able to target His message towards the needs and desires of the people of His time, the modern church needs to do the same. Contemporary Christianity must understand the needs and desires of people living today and present theology that is relevant, without diluting the Gospel.
The health message, prophecy, grace, and the Sabbath are all important, and will remain important for all eternity, but what changes is the way these beliefs are presented to the world. Is there a way to simplify prophecy to help die-hard sports fans or comic-book-loving nerds understand it? Is there a way to present the health message that reaches New Age believers? Is there a way to present grace to single parents? Do we know how to present the gospel to a raging, radical socialist and to a stubborn, troglodyte conservative without compromising Scripture?
If God didn’t care about our understanding and empathizing with the world, He would have just sent angels in our place. He wouldn’t have sent Jesus to commune and dwell among us. The entire Gospel is filled with Jesus finding ways to penetrate the social milieu so that humanity could gain a clearer view of God.
We can try our own methods, try to evangelize and run church our way, or we can try Christ’s method—one which requires us to truly empathize with the needs and desires of the culture around us so that we can present them to Jesus - their Ultimate need.