One more quality taught in this passage is probably the watershed in effective discipleship, and I believe it is the most critical issue the church must face today to become effective in winning men and women to Christ. It is the quality of cultural sensitivity and flexibility.
The greatest barriers to effective discipleship and evangelism are not theological—they are cultural. We do not know how to bridge back effectively to the non-Christian culture.
Notice how frequently the word became appears in verses 20-22:
To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law—To those not having the law I became like one not having the law.—To the weak I became weak—I have become all things to all men.
The issue in evangelism is not what information I need to process, but what identity I need to assume.
Someone who is effective in evangelism and discipleship always possesses the ability to become. He can become a naturalized citizen of another person’s world, walking in that person’s shoes, seeing life from his or her perspective.
This is important because people do things for their reasons, not mine. In a management training program I attended, a speaker pointed his finger at us and said, “People do not buy your product because they understand the product. They buy your product because they believe you understand them.” And I thought, When are we as Christians ever going to learn that truth?
The effective communicator in evangelism and discipleship is a person who cares. People don’t care how much we know until they know how much we care. When love is felt, the message is heard.
People need to see and feel truth before we tell them about it. That’s what the New Testament tells us: “Always be prepared to give an account to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Peter 3:15). This passage presupposes enough contact so that others have time to observe our hope.
There is no impact without contact. The word love has an interesting bedfellow throughout Scripture: the word neighbor, which comes from Latin and Greek roots meaning “to draw near.” Many of us are near to our neighbors geographically, but few are near to our neighbors spiritually.
As I reflected on my educational experience, it came as something of a shock to realize I wasn’t aware of a single professor of mine in either Bible college or seminary who was effectively winning his neighbors to Jesus Christ. And I know few pastors who are doing it either.
To be a neighbor is to be drawing near. That’s what Paul spoke of: “I have become all things to all men.” He developed the ability to draw near to any people. With the Jews he functioned and thought as a Jew and reasoned with them from the Jewish Scriptures. With the Gentiles he entered the mind-set of a Gentile, and didn’t argue from Scriptures they didn’t know.
Christians have developed four basic responses to the secular culture around them, and your effectiveness in discipleship is directly related to which response you choose.
The first response is rejection. The Christian says, “I don’t want to have anything to do with secular culture.” We see this particularly in the monastic movements which sought withdrawal from the world. Those who respond this way are committed to maintaining a radical Christian difference, and rightly so. But because they have no radical identification with the lost, they cultivate no redemptive relationships.
The immersionists, on the other hand, identify extensively with the lost. But they lose their saltiness and sell themselves short.
The third and most common approach to culture is split adaptation. On Sunday these people are into the Christian culture, maintaining the radical difference. But not on Monday. They say, “Well, you know, if you’re going to make it out there you’ve got to play their game. You’ve got to cut corners like everybody else. I don’t like to be out there doing it, but that’s the way the system works.”
Good seed scattered
Finally we have the correct approach to culture: critical participation. If we are to be effectively involved in marking men and women for Jesus Christ we will always struggle with the tension between being a citizen of heaven and living in this world. For God has not called us out of culture; rather, we are to live within the culture in which he has placed us. We are to be spiritually distinct, but not socially segregated.
In Matthew 13 are two parables about sowing seed. In the first parable the seed represents a verbal message—the proclamation of the gospel of the kingdom. In the second parable the seed is no longer a verbal message, but represents people: “the sons of the kingdom” (Matthew 13:38). It is as if those who become Christians by responding to the preached message in the first parable then become the message themselves. God walks the earth with his great seed bag, casting them out all around the world.
The seed in the second parable is called “good seed,” and the word good here in Greek could be translated “beautiful.” God’s strategy is to scatter his people in the midst of culture so they can be centers of beauty through which his nature can become visible. Once a church is established, the strategy shifts from proclamation to presence. The world can then hear the music of the gospel, and become predisposed to hearing the words.
The disciples we deploy into the world should be given permission and encouragement to mix it up with the non-Christian community. These men and women should be urged to go out and be involved at the front lines.
But false ideas about separation often prevent them from doing so. Separation does not mean isolation. We are to be separated from sin and separated unto God. Yet we are not to separate ourselves from the sinners of this world.
Another quality that belongs to those who would be effective in evangelism and discipleship is the ability to handle criticism. Isn’t it tragic that we’re the only army that shoots our own wounded soldiers? The few who actually go out where the non-Christians are and get wounded in the process have to wear the Ephesians 6 armor for protection from the barbs of other Christians.
If you seriously undertake the task of going into battle, you’ll be criticized for it. But the church needs men and women who are willing to stand alone and to reach out and touch unbelievers regardless of the criticism from within the body.
The effective discipler cannot avoid every appearance of evil. It is impossible. If you sit on the fence and remain neutral spiritually you won’t have any problem. But if you truly care for and love and get involved with people who hurt, you will come under the criticism of some within the body of Christ.
Our Lord Jesus Christ in no way avoided every appearance of evil. The religious community was after him regularly to launder his lifestyle because they couldn’t handle the fact that he was mixing it up with sinners. They accused him of being a glutton, a drunkard, and a friend of sinners. Similar voices hinder God’s work today.