A sincere Christian leader once told me he believed it to be impossible for a follower of another religion to truly convert to Christianity, except in the second or third generation. In my friend’s perception, the first generation of converts took only the external form of Christianity without really being saved. By his account, one or two generations would be lost for eternity until finally a grandchild could experience salvation. I questioned his statement then, and still disagree with that position today, because it negates Paul’s words that, “the Gospel is the Power of God unto salvation” to people of all cultures.
Too Big a Jump?
I understand my friend’s concern, though. It is a big jump from multiple gods to the one Triune God, from the law of Karma to the doctrine of grace, from endless reincarnations to eternal salvation, from Nirvana to the New Jerusalem. This is the reason why every faith conversation needs to be approached with cultural relevance, sensitivity, and power, so the truth of the Gospel can be understood and received in every culture (ILI Core Value #4).
Jesus and Cultural Relevance
Jesus is our supreme example of cultural sensitivity and relevance. His approach to the proclamation of the Kingdom of God teaches us valuable principles of cultural relevance.
- Embrace Culture. Every person lives within a culture, which is acquired from past generations and transmitted to the next. Culture shapes the way we behave and understand the world. John stated that “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:14). That meant the Son of God was fully human and fully a Jew. Jesus functioned and proclaimed His message from within a specific culture. We should follow the same example by seeking to understand and respect culture.
- Speak the Language. Of course, Jesus spoke Aramaic, probably Greek, and perhaps even some Latin. Beyond that, Jesus spoke the language of the people. He addressed them in the language of agriculture, fishing, baking, and even treasure hunting. Even if we don’t need to learn a whole new language, like cross-cultural missionaries, every believer should learn to speak “other languages” when sharing faith with people different than themselves.
- Start Where People Are. My friend’s first mistake was to expect people to “come to Christendom” (adopt the forms) before they could experience Christianity. Jesus always began where people were. He never demanded the Samaritan woman straighten out her life or for Nicodemus to leave the Sanhedrin council before talking to them.
- Come to Serve. Jesus stated clearly that “The son of Man came to serve.” By serving others, we “earn the right” to speak about our faith to them.
We Could Have Missed It
You and I probably would not be here discussing “Christian leadership” if not for a tense meeting almost 2,000 years ago in Jerusalem. It is registered in Acts 15. Christianity was born in Israel and from within the Jewish faith. Some Jewish Christians were demanding new believers from other cultures convert to the Jewish religion and culture before they could fully become Christians.
Paul represented the non-Jewish believers, defending salvation was by grace through faith in Christ, and not by following Jewish law. Fortunately, Paul’s position won the day. Nobody would have to adopt Jewish cultural forms in order to become a follower of Jesus Christ. On that historic occasion, the principle of cultural relevance was established, opening the door for the Gospel to be translated into every culture of the world, and for you and I to become Christians without having to “change” our culture or wait two generations for salvation to come to our grandchildren.