The subject of ‘witnessing in a multicultural society’ opens up many important questions, such as, ‘How is it possible to communicate the gospel meaningfully to various people groups simultaneously?’ Or ‘How are we supposed to follow Paul’s example of being all things to all men by being culturally relevant but also biblically faithful to sound doctrine?’ Is there a tried and tested approach for reaching all people groups, or are there appropriate biblical precedents that shed light on reaching individuals from a melting pot of ethnic and religious backgrounds?
There are clear guidelines and precedents from God’s word and particularly within the book of Acts, which will be opened up later. As forethought however, the Great Commission compels us to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19). Similarly, when the Lord explained Paul’s mission to Ananias, He said “Go, for he is a chosen vessel of Mine to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel” (Acts 9:15).
Firstly though, it is worth considering our attitude and understanding relating to this phenomenon within our immediate locality. Multiculturalism can at times be perceived in a negative sense, in that a cauldron of religions and ideologies are being presented at an alarming rate making the work of the evangelist an apparently insurmountable task. On the other hand, a mission field of many nations, some of which are extremely hostile to the gospel, let alone religious freedom, is now for many of us, present on our doorstep.
Furthermore, thinking historically, during the time of the Roman Empire on the Western side, despite horrific persecution, the logistics of that era enabled the gospel to spread like wildfire. The language barrier was overcome, transport became safer and more efficient, Christians with a desire to learn the Scriptures became highly literate and occupied high office within government and the gospel subsequently became accessible to many. The product of these factors was not purely coincidental but rather an outworking of God’s providence.
In his article ‘Christ and Cultures: Multiculturalism and the Gospel of Christ’ Kenneth Boa helpfully answers his own question concerning the relevance of witnessing in a multicultural society in our day.
‘Is the claim that Jesus Christ is the Lord and Saviour of the world relevant to a world in which so many cultures coexist in such close proximity, a world weary of conflict between peoples and nations of disparate cultures? Not only should Christians not be embarrassed to make this claim, we should see in the cry for a multicultural ideal a tremendous opportunity to present the claim of Christ to all people.’
Consider the Culture
I remember reading a sports science textbook and when assessing an athletes’ training regime and requirements a theme entitled ‘consider the athlete’ was constantly reintroduced. This related to the age, gender, physical development, fitness attributes, skilfulness, level of commitment etc. in evaluating how to enhance that person’s development.
When engaging in multicultural evangelism we need to consider the culture. In addition to observing the groups of people represented within an area, it is useful to briefly examine the demographics of that area from the National Office of Statistics which can be accessed on the internet. For example, Open Air Evangelism in Poole, Dorset, is markedly different to that of Bournemouth whilst they are approximately only five miles apart. Bournemouth Town Centre is multicultural, partly due to the number of language schools within the immediate vicinity while Poole has lesser multi-ethnic representation.
R.C. Sproul believes that every Christian is a missionary and writes concerning the importance of cultural awareness.
‘Imagine being sent to a foreign country as a missionary without any prior training. Imagine receiving no instructions about who the people are, what language they speak, or how they think. Before a missionary can go to a foreign field, that person must study the country in depth. He must learn the language and the customs and gain some insight into how the people think. A tribe in the jungle has a vastly different outlook contrasted to middle-class suburbanites or inner-city apartment dwellers.
Let’s assume that we are missionaries to the United States. What is needed for our preparation? It’s not enough simply to know the content of the Gospel. It’s also important that we understand the society in which we are acting out our role as missionaries.
Though the gospel message must remain the same, the way it is presented will depend on who is being reached. When Philip heard the Ethiopian Eunuch reading Isaiah, he asked him, ‘“Do you understand what you are reading? And he said, “How can I unless someone guides me?” And he asked Philip to come up and sit with him’ (Acts 8:30-31). It was if Philip and the Ethiopian were demonstrating what Paul was imploring in Romans 10:14 and 17! ‘How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?…So then faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God.’
The Ethiopian needed the gospel explaining to him and we must never assume that because someone says they have heard the gospel, particularly from a different culture, that they have understood it. And that isn’t people who are non-white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, it’s a matter of comprehending the biblical view which, although it is influenced greatly by the context and thinking of the people from the bible lands themselves, is relevant to everyone today and always.
For example, when a Christian is discussing sin, salvation, heaven and hell or deity with a Hindu or New Ager, unless those terms are explained or defined, it is likely that the two parties will attribute an entirely different concept in relation to those terms mentioned. That is one reason why someone from a different faith can offer a completely different interpretation to even a straightforward passage of Scripture. The same can sometimes be said when sharing one’s faith with a person involved in a ‘Christian cult’, since their view is likely to be set within the parameters of what they have been taught within their respective organisation.
In a generic sense, there could simply be some differences between an Eastern and Western mind-set. Again, this is not a new thing. Remember when Paul wrote to the Corinthians, ‘For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness’ (1 Cor. 1:22-23). In Hebraic thought body, soul and spirit are understood to be related whereas in traditional Greek thought they are viewed as distinct and separate. It follows that beliefs about what happens to the body or soul after death will affect how someone lives their life in the here and now.
Engaging Evangelistically in Multicultural Society
Whilst remaining faithful to the gospel, Paul varied his delivery according to those he was conversing with. Before addressing the Epicureans and Stoics in the Areopagus, Paul reasoned with the Jews and the Gentile worshippers in the synagogue (Acts 17:17). The Jews and the ‘God-fearing Gentiles’ were familiar with the Scriptures so that was his common practice (Acts 13:42-44; 17:2, 10-11; 18:4; 19:8). Therefore, when reaching out to Jewish folk or those from Christian cults or those who have been raised in a Christian family but don’t believe in the Lord Jesus, it makes sense to reason from the Scriptures.
When Paul delivered his famous sermon in Athens, his approach was markedly different because those whom he was speaking to had contrasting worldviews with those of the Jews and God-fearing Gentiles. Athens was renowned for its philosophers and could almost be described as a marketplace of philosophy, hence Luke recalled, ‘For all the Athenians and the foreigners who were there spent their time in nothing else but to tell or hear some new thing’ (Acts 17:22). This is remarkably like post-modern Britain where a whole spectrum of views may be presented, since as well as the major faiths being endorsed, some people think that God is and is in everything, others appeal to quantum physics as their excuse for non-committal views and some chase the latest fad and are reasonably confident that the world is going to come to an end in December 2012!
The Epicureans were akin to moderate hedonists so they tried to enjoy the pleasures of life whilst they were able to and sought liberation from pain and suffering whenever possible. They were essentially humanists in that if the gods did exist, they were too remote to influence or have an impact on their lives. Meanwhile, the Stoics perceived that there was a life force in everything, so they considered themselves to have a sense of duty to others and to some extent could be compared with New Agers.
Paul was simultaneously about to preach to two completely different sets of enquirers and he did so clearly and faithfully. But how did he commence? We might be tempted to prepare two sermons or call for back up and enlist the services of specialist apologists and split the audience into two parties. Nonetheless Paul didn’t have that luxury and neither do we, since we should always be ready to give a defence to anyone who asks us a reason for the hope within us, with meekness and fear (1 Pet. 3:15).
Paul quickly identified that they had a need since they had an altar to the unknown God. This was basically an admission on their behalf that either they didn’t know or comprehend who God was or that He was too remote for them to know Him. It’s a bit like those today who say, how can I believe in a God I can’t see and why doesn’t He reveal himself?
Paul commenced with creation and the fact that God created everyone and everything, thereby levelling the playing field and dispelling potential racist issues since ‘He gives to all life, breath and all things. And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each of us’ (Acts 17:25-27).
He was explaining the underlying message of Romans 1 in that the invisible attributes of God are clearly seen in creation. Likewise today when conversing simultaneously with Atheists and Pantheists, a good starting point would be to draw everyone’s attention to the notion that a building is evidence of a builder’s design and labour, a masterpiece painting doesn’t spontaneously appear but is the painstaking and thoughtful work of an artist and that creation is ordered and testifies of the Creator.
Next Paul did what at first seems an unusual though certainly relevant means of building a bridge with them. He quoted the Stoic poet Aratus in Acts 17:28 “For in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring.’” The connection with the offspring of God was used as a springboard to explain the need to repent because God will judge the world in righteousness by the Man that He has ordained and given assurance of that by raising Him from the dead (Acts 17:29-31).
Although Paul quoted secular authors on other occasions (Menader: 1 Cor. 15:33; Epimenides: Titus 1:12) that doesn’t mean he was advocating everything they said or believed. It was simply a means of establishing common ground and using that as a means to relate to the gospel. In a similar way, and if done appropriately and thoughtfully, sports, music or the arts could be used as initial means of a talking point to open up a line of argument about the need to relate to God. For example, with an athlete, the race of faith (Heb. 12:1-2), competing for the prize (1 Cor. 9:24-27) or the soldier, far
mer, athlete passage in 2 Timothy 2 would be meaningful examples which could easily be opened up having started a conversation about athletes or the Olympics.
‘The lesson for preachers and Christian missionaries is clear. God has given us in the book of Acts a pattern of a way to effectively reach people today, which we can follow in our own preaching. Demonstrated to us is the way in which the Apostle Paul adapted his approach and adjusted his method of preaching to best suit the culture of his hearers, both Jews and Gentiles—to begin where they were at. We also see the way in which he used creation evangelism to best penetrate the thinking of the Greeks. Creation evangelism is a tool which works. Our society today, in its evolutionary thinking, ignorance of the one true living God, and preoccupation with sex, is much more like that of the Greeks than that of the Jews. Preachers today can therefore follow this pattern to their own advantage and the advantage of their hearers.’
Paul encountered a mixed audience in Acts 23 and when he realised that one part were Sadducees who deny the resurrection and the other were Pharisees who affirm it, he sided with Pharisees on the basis of the resurrection. This is an extremely helpful principle when sharing the gospel with a group of people who have differing views. One may believe that we are created whilst the other denies the supernatural. Siding with the one affirming creation on that issue will also make the other person question why two people affirm a creation although they have differing views concerning God and will challenge their presupposition that we are all existing by pure chance. Or with monotheists and pantheists, by agreeing with the monotheist that it is only rational that there is one God will again challenge the Pantheist as to whether their assumption that there are numerous gods or even everyone is God is reasonable.
Paul also recognised the importance of follow up visitations, strengthening the converts and making disciples. The disciples themselves strengthened the converts in Derbe and exhorted them to continue in the faith (Acts 14:22). In Antioch ‘they stayed there a long time with the disciples’ (Acts 14:28). ‘Then after some days Paul said to Barnabus, “Let us now go back and visit our brethren in every city where we have preached the word of the Lord, and see how they are doing”’ (Acts 15:36). Follow up visitations with new believers, and with those still seeking God, is so vital, since it not only builds relationships and provides fellowship but is also a tremendous encouragement and enables discipleship which is itself inseparably part of the Great Commission.
Becoming all things to all men (1 Corinthians 9:19-23)
The issue here is, how do we remain biblically correct, yet culturally sensitive and in that order? Our primary motivation should always be to please God. Yet often the two extremes can result since one’s own culture is sometimes assumed to be synonymous with godliness or when adopting another’s culture entrenched in compromising practises it can mistakenly be perceived as godly charity. Some colonial missionaries unhelpfully imposed their culture yet some contemporary missionaries water down the gospel.
Paul desired to serve others so that he could win them to Christ and become all things to all men, that by all means some would be saved. Therefore, if there is any means by which we can respect another person’s cultural upbringing which does not conflict with the word of God, it would be helpful to do those things to remove cultural barriers. For example, with Muslims the way in which we handle the Bible and how we place it will in their minds be a witness in how we value our book. Though in our minds we may mark our Bibles for reference because we value them so highly and wish to bring a point to our attention, we would do ourselves a great favour by using a Bible that is not marked and keeping our Bibles elevated and certainly not putting them on the floor. This is an easy thing to do and remember and could easily make the difference between a Muslim being willing to discuss their faith or being dismissive of our treatment of our holy book.
On the other hand it would not be appropriate to enter into a Mosque or into a Hindu temple. Entering into a Mosque involves removing the shoes which in that context constitutes an act of worship (Exod. 3:5; Joshua 5:15) and it simply wouldn’t be right to enter into a place specifically designated for the worship of another god. Moreover, even if the intention was to use that visit to build bridges, it would give out signals to other believers that it is okay to enter sites of worship to other gods. When considering God’s command in Judges to tear down the altars and the inhabitants would be as thorns and their gods as snares, (Judges 2:2-3) it would have been unthinkable for God’s people to enter into a foreign place of worship.
With Jewish people or Muslims, if we are serious about trying to win them over for Christ, then it would be wise to abstain from pork or items that are obviously offensive in their presence. If possible with vegetarians it just makes sense not to eat meat, if you are meeting up with them to share your faith. That is a tiny sacrifice that again can make a huge difference and demonstrate that we value others as people and see them as such, not simply as potential converts. If we know for certain that food has been sacrificed to idols and we are offered it, the principle should be, are we trying to please God or man? Sometimes we forget that others will respect us equally if we refuse to do certain things but explain why in a gracious manner.
Initiating Conversations in a Multicultural Society-Barriers and Bridges
Tal Davis from 4.Truth.Net, ‘a reasoned approach to Christianity’ notes that ethnic diversity in North America and Canada has experienced unprecedented growth over subsequent decades and therefore believes in educating Christians concerning the beliefs and practises of various people groups for three vital reasons.
1. It is mandatory for believers to have some understanding of people groups to minimize preconceived misconceptions or fears we may have about them and to encourage personal relationships with them.
2. Many religions aggressively seek to proselytise Christians to their beliefs. Thus, we must prepare our people adequately to understand their own faith (1 Pet. 3:15) and not be misled by those promoting other belief systems (2 Cor. 11:4; Gal. 1:6f; 2 Pet. 2:1; 2 John 7-8).
3. We are commanded in the Bible to carry the unique message of salvation through Jesus Christ to all peoples (Matt. 28:19-20; Acts 1:8). Our conviction is that salvation is found in no other name but Jesus (John 14:6; Acts 4:12; 1 Tim. 2:5-6). Thus, we seek to equip our people for evangelising those in all people groups and faiths in ways that are loving and sensitive, yet uncompromising (Eph. 4:15).
When having a conversation with someone of another faith there is usually some common ground and this is a great place to start from. Depending on how well you know the other person, or where they are coming from, it is usually helpful to start with something in common before launching into a full scale debate. For example, with Jewish folk it would be great to affirm the Old Testament Scriptures, God’s purposes for Israel and the biblical characters, before discussing who the Messiah is. Nevertheless that can commence at some stage by referring to the numerous prophetic passages throughout the Old Testament.
With Muslims, affirming creation and Old Testament characters and demonstrating concern over the immorality within English society can build a connection quickly. Instead of moving immediately into Allah versus Yahweh, a more appropriate and leading question would be asking the other person wheth
er they think they will go to Paradise and on what basis? That may follow onto a discussion on how the Bible describes God, though it is not necessary to state our God is like this but yours is like that. Merely by explaining the character of the God of the Bible, it will soon become evident to the Muslim that very different entities are being discussed without initially undermining their belief system. This may lead onto a series of discussions and give the other person time to think through issues for themselves.
With other eastern religions you may ask them to explain why they believe what they believe. By that you are enabling a dialogue and showing that you are listening to their views. Then you can provide your testimony but also mention the incredible historical accuracy of the Bible and that you are grateful that there is so much evidence in support of your faith. There is no need initially to point out that Eastern religions have little historical grounding in real events-that will become self-evident. (Eastern religions are invariably based on philosophical systems, not dependent on historical reality and neither can they offer assurance of salvation, just a vain hope that in the next life there may be a better existence in the next one if one is good enough). Again you can ask them whether they would like to have an assurance of where they will go in the next life and whether it matters if faith is grounded on reality and concerns, people, places and events that actually happened?
With Atheists or Evolutionists, before questioning the presuppositions of whether something can be created out of nothing, or if it is more feasible that the world is created rather than the result of an extremely long series of chances that miraculously occurred resulting in life as we know it, searching questions can be asked concerning morality and justice. If there is no God, then can we objectively determine what morality constitutes when everyone has their own definition of how society should operate. If there is no God, then does life have any meaning? What is the purpose of having a conscience if we randomly evolved by chance? Why should we believe in justice if we are all accidents anyway? Later on we can ask them who they think Jesus is/was when they recognise that they have a need to know God.
Ten Pitfalls of a Foolish Apologist
Brian Auten, the Director of Reasonable Faith Belfast and also the Founder of Apologists 315 in his brilliant article on the pitfalls of a foolish apologist, lists ten points that are equally valid and useful for witnessing to others in a multicultural society. In short, it is easy to try to do the right thing but in the wrong way! Having said that, if the statements listed below are considered and taken on board and the reverse is positively employed, they will greatly enhance the effectiveness of a credible and biblical Christian witness. The last point refers to those who either study or discuss apologetics as an interesting subject in its own right; though spend little time using apologetics as a means of defending their faith or reaching out to others.
The foolish apologist speaks before listening
The foolish apologist overstates his argument.
The foolish apologist wants to win every point.
The foolish apologist chases red herrings.
The foolish apologist is proud of himself.
The foolish apologist seeks popularity.
The foolish apologist neglects spiritual disciplines.
The foolish apologist has not love.
The foolish apologist isolates himself from others.
The foolish apologist doesn’t do apologetics.
To effectively witness to others in a multicultural society it is crucial that we consider the culture of those we are likely to converse with and the individual engaged in conversation. Demonstrating an appropriate knowledge or awareness of another’s background will quickly remove obstacles that could hinder meaningful dialogue and equally provide further opportunity for follow-up discussion, having earned the right to witness.
We should follow Paul’s example recognising that we should vary our style or approach depending on who we are corresponding with, yet ensuring that the gospel message is clear and remains the same. We should try to be all things to all men in the way that Paul actually intended. If we are not sure if we are compromising with our approach, then the bottom line should be governed by the factors, is the principle scriptural and are we trying to please God or man?
This can be achieved only by God’s grace and by building bridges, not barriers. It therefore helps to do some research concerning the background and beliefs of those we are likely to come across in the places where we witness. Someone may sow a seed and another may water it, though it is ultimately God that gives the increase and since He is the author of salvation, this vital and necessary work needs to be saturated by constant and fervent prayer.
As the one who suggested this topic at the Conference I may need to get my word in edgeways.
Yes it can be construed as being an act of worship of another god by entering certain places of worship such as Mosques, Hindu temples or indeed Sikh temples. I observe certain of their practices as a mark of respect to them, such as wearing something on my head, but then I have been invited as work colleagues, a friend or just someone who’s taking photographs.
My own experience is that I’ve not been asked to do anything I don’t want to, I can just observe (or peer through the viewfinder), as a lot of the time I couldn’t understand what was being said anyway. I am understood as being a Christian, and in giving them enough respect to be there with them. Occasionally you will get into an interesting conversation, but the hard part sometimes in being diplomatic and not saying things. It is after all about making bridges, ones that someone else may pass over in the future.