Years ago, my family traveled by ship from the United States to Brazil. The trip marked a new beginning. We expected that. We did not expect that the sixteen days aboard the ship would, in themselves, mark the beginning of discoveries that are still going on.
There were 120 people on the ship. Half were tourists and half were missionaries—including us. Sixty missionaries and sixty tourists! A one-to-one ratio for sixteen days. Since there isn’t much more to do aboard ship than to walk, read, or converse, I couldn’t imagine how any of those tourists could get through the trip without receiving a thorough exposure to the Christian message. More ideal conditions for evangelism couldn’t exist.
During the first three days my wife and I spent our time relating to the other passengers. Conversations were unhurried and soon we found ourselves deeply involved in discussing Christ with our new acquaintances.
On the third day I thought that if the other fifty-eight missionaries were doing what we were, we would have a serious case of overkill. I decided to check with the others about coordinating our efforts. My first opportunity came when I encountered six missionaries sitting together on the deck. I joined them and expressed my concern that we get our signals straight so we wouldn’t overwhelm the passengers.
I had totally misjudged the problem. When I explained what was on my mind, the six just looked at one another. Apparently, it hadn’t occurred to them to talk to the other sixty passengers about Christ. Finally one said, “We just graduated from seminary and didn’t learn how to do that sort of thing there.” Another said, “I don’t know. I have sort of a built-in reservation against the idea of conversion.” A third said, “I’ve been a pastor for three years, but I’ve never personally evangelized anyone. I don’t think I know how either.”
I remember saying that if we, in sixteen days and with a one-to-one ratio, couldn’t evangelize sixty people, we might as well forget about ninety-five million Brazilians. Perhaps it would be just as well if we would all catch the next boat north.
A few hours later there was a knock on our cabin door. I opened it to find three of the six I had just been talking to. They had come to tell me they had obtained permission from the captain to conduct a Sunday service for the ship’s crew and that they wanted me to preach the sermon.
As they elaborated their plan, I was reminded of a conversation I had three weeks before with a friend’s pastor. The pastor told me his congregation had recently begun witnessing. He said the young people were going to the old folks’ home each Sunday to conduct a service. Some of his men were holding weekly jail services after which they would counsel prisoners individually.
Obviously, there is nothing wrong with conducting services in jails and rest homes, but if such things alone constitute the main evangelistic thrust of a body of Christians it raises a problem. I asked the pastor, “Aren’t you running the risk of teaching your congregation that the gospel is only for those in unfortunate circumstances—for those who are relatively unthreatening to us? Shouldn’t Christians learn to carry the message to their peers, to go after people on their own level?”
I expressed the same concern to the three missionaries in my cabin. We could slip into the same mental trap aboard ship. I said, “Your consciences were pricked by what we talked about. So now you’ve spotted the unfortunate sailors who never go to church and have planned a service for them. That is good, but I don’t think we can escape from our responsibility to the passengers.”
They got the point, but they had already committed themselves to conducting a service for the crew. The captain posted a notice in the crew’s quarters, and arrangements had been made to use the galley. I agreed to attend, but not to speak.
The four of us arrived in the galley on schedule. It was empty. Occasionally a sailor would have to go through the room in the course of his duties. He would dart through quickly, obviously intent on not getting caught. Finally, one sailor came in and sat down. He was a Baptist. So we had the service: four missionaries and one Baptist sailor!
After that, my three friends began to think in terms of going to the tourists.
There was an elderly Christian couple among the passengers. It was the husband’s birthday so the three missionaries organized an old-fashioned sing to commemorate the occasion. Sensing what was coming and not wanting to jeopardize my relationship with the people I was evangelizing, I felt it wiser to stay away. When the time came for the program, I was up on the third deck. One other passenger was up there enjoying the night air. We began discussing the New Testament I had taken along to read.
Down below we could hear the old songs: “Swannee River,” “My Old Kentucky Home”; then it was “Rock of Ages,” another hymn, a pause. And so it went: hymns, testimonies, and a message.
When it was over my three friends were euphoric. They had succeeded in “preaching” to virtually all the passengers. Naturally, they called another sing for two nights later. Once again I went to the third deck, but this time there were sixty others up there with me. They weren’t about to get caught twice!
As I later reflected on those sixteen days aboard ship, it occurred to me that this situation represented a microcosm of the church in the world. That realization, combined with the subsequent years of adapting to a new culture and language for the sake of the gospel, has raised scores of questions and set me on a quest that continues to this day. This search has to do with what it really means to take the gospel into the world.
Closing the communication gap between Christians and the secularized must become a primary concern if we are to go beyond evangelizing our own kind.
A short passage by Paul in 1 Corinthians 9 synthesizes this as a single principle. The subject of the passage is clearly evangelism. Paul wrote:
Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jew I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law—so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings (1 Corinthians 9:19-23).
Paul said that as a witness he recognized it was up to him to adapt to the unevangelized. The witness adjusts to those he evangelizes, and not vice versa. Paul defended his freedom to be all things to all men because he knew this was the balance between being “in the world” and being “separate” from it. To be in the world one has to be free to participate in the lives of those around him. Being separate means we do this without compromising the sovereign rule of God in our heart—without sinning, in other words.
What does being “all things to all men” mean in practice? What did it mean for Paul to live like a Jew while among Jews, and then change and live like one without the law when he was among the Gentiles? It meant he would respect the scruples and traditions of whomever he was with, and have the flexibility to set one group’s practices aside as he entered the world of persons with different customs.
This struck many as a scandalous thought, but Paul was willing to pay a price for his position. He was a controversial figure among Christians and non-Christians until the day he died. It takes maturity and courage to “go to the Gentiles.”
As we discussed why a team of missionaries in his country was having difficulty establishing a solid ministry, a South American said, “Their sanctification is American. I get the impression they are afraid to adapt to the culture because in so doing they would become soiled by the world. They fear they would be ‘going pagan.'”
Change is hard to face, especially in areas of behavior. Going into the world requires change. It implies participation in people’s lives. It means to think, to feel, to understand, and to take seriously the values of those we seek to win.
The incarnation is our prototype. Jesus set his glory aside, “made himself nothing,” and “humbled himself” (Philippians 2:7-8). Consequently, “we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). He came into the world, lived life in our presence, and participated with us in life as we live it. He drew the line only at sin. To what degree could we identify with God if there had been no incarnation?
The apostle Paul followed the same principle. He went to non-Christians in order to bring them to God, but he knew their route to God had to pass through his own life. “You are witnesses,” he reminded the Thessalonians, “of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you” (1 Thessalonians 2:10).
For better or for worse, the life a Christian lives in the presence of those he seeks to win is a preview of what the nonChristian’s life will become if he accepts what he is hearing. Generally, he will decide either to accept or reject Christianity according to what he has seen. I stumbled onto this rather unnerving truth unwittingly.
A Brazilian friend, Mario, and I studied the Bible for four years together before he became a Christian. As an intellectual who had read almost all of the leading western thinkers from Rousseau to Kafka, he had blended together a personal philosophy that was fundamentally Marxist—with Bertrand Russell as his patron saint. He was a political activist, a leader in many Marxist activities. Why he kept studying the Bible with me for four years, or why I stuck with him so long, neither of us can explain today. But there we were.
Since he lived life on the philosophical plane, our Bible studies were often pitched in that direction. One day, a couple of years after Mario had become a Christian, he and I were reminiscing. He asked me, “Do you know what it really was that made me decide to become a Christian?” Of course, I immediately thought of our numerous hours of Bible study, but I responded, “No, what?”
His reply took me completely by surprise. He said, “Remember that first time I stopped by your house? We were on our way someplace together and I had a bowl of soup with you and your family. As I sat there observing you, your wife, your children, and how you related to each other, I asked myself, When will I have a relationship like this with my fiancee? When I realized the answer was ‘never,’ I concluded I had to become a Christian for the sake of my own survival.”
I remembered the occasion well enough to recall that our children were not particularly well-behaved that evening. In fact, I remembered I had felt frustrated when I corrected them in Mario’s presence.
Mario saw that Christianity binds a family together. The last verse in the Old Testament refers to turning “the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers” (Malachi 4:6).
Our family was unaware of our influence on Mario. God had done this work through our family without our knowing it.
Most Christians are probably unaware of most of the improvements God makes on us in the sanctification process. We tend to see the weaknesses and incongruities in our lives, and our reaction is to recoil at the thought of letting outsiders get close enough to see us as we really are.
Even if our assessment is accurate, it is my observation that any Christian who is sincerely seeking to walk with God, in spite of all his flaws, reflects something of Christ. It seems that the better we think we are doing, the worse we come across.
It is not enough, then, to occasionally drop into another individual’s world, preach to him, and go our way. Somehow, he needs to be brought into our world as well. If he isn’t, the view he gets of us is so fragmented he could miss the total picture. He doesn’t see the effects the grace of God has had in our day-to-day lives.
But this two-way interaction will never happen unless we Christians learn how to become “all things to all men.”