The timeless question, “Which do you want first, the good news or the bad?” seems one never easily answered. It all depends on the mood of the hearer, really–somehow determined by whether or not he or she is prepared to hear or accept either the good or the bad. Gospel proclamation–evangelism–is the same way. It is dependent upon the Spirit to prepare the hearts of the hearers to receive it. Yet we believers do not have the luxury of sharing it or not. It rests within the identity of Christians as Ambassadors of Christ, compelled by Christ’s sacrificial love for us, to reconcile others to God (2 Corinthians 5). We proclaim the Good News because we’ve been reconciled and cannot hold it in. In this article, Zane Pratt expounds on what it means to evangelize, or share the Good News across cultures with those who’ve not heard. This article is the first in what will be an ongoing series on cross-cultural evangelism.
The Gospel is the Solution
Evangelism is the first step in making disciples of Jesus. According to the Bible, everyone in the world who is apart from Christ is spiritually dead in their rebellion against God (Ephesians 2:1-10). They stand under condemnation from God for their offenses against Him, and that condemnation is completely just (John 3:16-18). God owes us nothing, but in His free mercy and grace He has provided one and only one solution to our eternally deadly problem of sin. That solution is the gospel.
God owes us nothing, but in His free mercy and grace He has provided a solution to our eternally deadly problem of sin–the Gospel.
The good news of the gospel is that God became a man in the person of Jesus the Messiah. Jesus was our substitute, who lived the life we should have lived and then died the death we deserved to die, taking on the Himself the wrath we deserved for our rebellion against God. He rose again from the dead in complete and final victory over sin and death.
Christ returned to heaven, where He sits now enthroned at the right hand of God the Father and intercedes for His people. He will come again at the end of history and make all things new, banishing evil and sorrow and pain forever.
The Gospel is a Gift; Evangelism is the Delivery Method
Now, he graciously offers the gift of salvation to everyone who will repent of their rebellion against God and put their trust in Him alone to save them. This gift of salvation includes forgiveness of all sin, adoption as the children of God, the gift of the Holy Spirit living within them, and eternal life in infinite joy with Him. In order to be saved from eternal condemnation, people must hear (or read, or have signed to them) this message and respond with repentance and faith.
Evangelism is the act of sharing this incredible news with people who need to hear it. For that reason, evangelism is an urgent priority for the people of God.
The basic content of the gospel is the same no matter where a person lives or what language a person speaks. However, in order to be effective, the message must be understood. At the most basic level, that means that effective evangelists must speak and understand the language of the people they are trying to reach.
Just as it would do no good to read directly from the original Greek text of the New Testament to a typical American unbeliever, so also it does no good to speak the gospel in English to a person who speaks only Hindi or Chinese (or to a deaf person who doesn’t read lips). Even if a person knows enough English to sell their wares to tourists, they may not know enough to understand the gospel, and the deep things of the heart are best understood in a person’s heart language anyway.
For this reason, cross-cultural evangelism requires effective communication skills in the language of the people the evangelist is trying to reach. However, the matter goes deeper than language. The message of the gospel presupposes an entire worldview – the worldview of the Bible.
The Bible presents a picture of reality that stands at odds with both a secular worldview and with the perspective of every other world religion. This worldview is spelled out in the Old Testament, and the New Testament assumes and builds on everything taught in the Old. The Bible presents a very specific picture of who God is, what He requires, what the world is, what it means to be human, what went wrong with us and with the world, how God acts, what the destiny of each individual person will be, and where history is going, and the gospel message presupposes every piece of this background.
Assumptions, often unexamined and hidden from view, can seriously affect the ability of a person to understand the gospel.
Fallen human cultures make assumptions about each of these worldview elements that are often different from the biblical perspective and from one another. These assumptions, which are often unexamined and hidden from view, can seriously affect the ability of a person to understand the gospel. For this reason, cross-cultural understanding is necessary for effective sharing of the gospel with a person from any culture. (This is even true in North American cultures, which have moved so far in unbiblical directions that there is little residual knowledge of a biblical worldview remaining.)
As we share the good news, a few helpful questions might be
- When we talk about God, what if anything do people understand?
- What is their concept of right or wrong, and what do they think are the consequences (if any) of doing wrong?
- What do they think is the destiny of people after death?
The answers to these question vary from culture to culture, and if we do not know the answers, we run the serious risk of speaking unintelligibly to them.
Therefore, although the message of the gospel is the same everywhere, the way it is presented and the explanations that accompany it may vary from place to place. Our goal is clarity for the person who is listening. We want them to understand the biblical message according to biblical terms. If there is offense because the message, we want it to be the offense of the cross, not the unnecessary offense of poor communication. Therefore we must be aware that cross-cultural evangelism requires cross-cultural knowledge and sensitivity.
Zane Pratt is the Vice President of Training for the International Mission Board.