Contextualization: The Gospel and Your Neighbor

Have you ever thought that you’d like to discuss your Christian faith with someone, but you haven’t the slightest clue where to start? Have you ever hesitated to talk about your faith because you expect to already be pigeonholed as a bigot before anyone ever takes the time to understand where you’re coming from? Have you ever tried firing through the Romans Road or repeating a evangelistic plea that you’ve heard in church, only to get shut down right out of the gate? If you feel inadequate, ashamed, or frustrated in your attempts at talking about the faith that not only means the world to you, but also is the source for your entire understanding of how the world works, there is hope.

In this article, I’d like to share with you a method of discussing your faith that is simple to learn, built on developing mutual understanding, and non-combative. While this method confronts people with truth, it does so at their own pace and in an elicited manner rather than in a forced manner. In an increasingly post-Christian United States, where whipping out a tract or bringing up the Gospel in the workplace can get you fired, believers in Christ who see the Great Commission as binding on their lives must approach this responsibility with wisdom and tact. Our post-Christian culture also has created a vacuum of shared Christian pre-understandings. In other words, definitions of sin and grace and even stories in the Bible lack the clarity in our culture that they had in the middle to end of the last century. In light of these challenges, we need to improve our methods of sharing the Gospel. I’m not saying that we need to improve the Gospel. I’m saying that just as the Apostle Paul rarely used the same method twice in order to present the Gospel but, rather, adapted his presentation based on his audience, so should we.

I learned this method of sharing my faith while in seminary from Dr. Cashin, whom I’ve since interviewed on the topic of contextualization. With his permission, I’m presenting his method of engaging in Gospel conversations here on my blog with some adaptation. It is my hope that this simple approach will be helpful to those of you who, like me, struggle to discuss your faith with confidence.

This method seeks to build mutual understanding as a means to sharing your faith. Understanding our neighbors involves understanding their worldview. There are three legs of the stool of a person’s worldview: being, knowing, and doing. Ethnologists call these legs: ontology, epistemology, and axiology. Investigating these zones of your friend’s worldview requires that you ask questions–7 to be specific. And I know this doesn’t come easy. Most of the time, we’re so quick to share our answers, answers which others aren’t ready for or interested in hearing. Christians often struggle with asking questions when it comes to discussing our faith. We’re off the blocks too soon and our friends are still back at the starting line when we begin pushing for a decision. So slow down. Ask questions. Interview them. Write down their answers. I guarantee you that when you’re done, they will crave your input.

Galaxy

Being (Ontology):

First, it may be great to start with some questions on their views of human origin and destiny, and true power or success. If this isn’t a natural jumping-off point, feel free to start elsewhere, but these questions are often extremely thought-provoking. There are also a large number of questions in this category. Let’s begin:

Where do we come from?

In asking this question, it’s easy to get sidetracked into a discussion on the mechanics of where humans came from (apes, atom, age of rocks, etc.), but that isn’t the purpose of the question. Another way to ask this question may be, “If you pressed rewind on all of history and got all the way to the beginning of the recording, what would you find?” We want to discover whether our colleagues see everything that exists as the result of pre-existing matter/anti-matter or as the result of some sort of supernatural intervention. Usually people will self-sort as supernaturalist or naturalist based on their answer to this question. They will either view the stuff that they can see and touch and examine under a microscope as all that exists, or they will see the reality or possibility of someone/thing else standing aside or above all things and causing the stuff we see (ourselves included) to exist.

Where are we going?

The origin of humanity gives us answers to the direction of the race. This zoom-out question is designed to get at more than just our individual purpose, but in the end goal for all of humanity. The naturalist has no end-game. Someday, the earth will burn up or the stars will burn down and humanity will die out. Perhaps we escape for awhile, but in the end humanity is just a blip on the radar of a cold and dying universe. Or is there more to life? Is there something better to look forward to? Is there something terrible to dread? Is there something more deserving that awaits the Adolf Hitlers of this world who slip off into death in unpunished sleep? What is the end of humanity?

What is our ultimate meaning and purpose in life?

Here we take some time to understand our friend’s hopes and dreams. Do they want to leave money for the next generation? Do they hope to contribute to academia or sports so that they’re remembered beyond their lives? Do they feel that all that’s worth living for is another high, another one-night stand? What makes you tick and why? Getting to the bottom of this question helps us clarify the weight or value of what people see as the most important stuff in life.

What is the nature of our problem and how do we solve it?

Now, technically, this question assumes something, that there is a human problem. But I think it exposes a truism that underlies every human’s thinking. We all assume that something, somewhere got screwed up along the way. I mean, come on, if there wasn’t a problem with humanity you wouldn’t have Republicans and Democrats, right? And have you seen the way some people drive? Seriously! But to get real, we see some serious darkness in our world today: corporate greed, abortion, sex trafficking, injustice, and war, to name a few. Turn on the news and you’ll see that humanity has gone batty. But how it can be solved–that’s a question! Is there hope for broken humanity, and where do we find it?

How can we be successful in life and where does real power come from?

Success and power are intertwined. If success looks like achieving a certain level of wealth, then power=money. Understanding your friend’s view of power or success will help you understand what drives them. Materialism pushes us to see success in monetary terms. Naturalism forces people to define power or success in bettering others, gaining approval, or survival of the fittest. What about views of success that emphasize efforts such as philanthropy or social justice? What worldview do they fit with?

human brain on white background

Knowing (epistemology):

The next category which is helpful to discuss is the category of thinking that deals with how we use logic and sorting to come up with truth. Different cultures and generations have different methods for determining what is true.

How do you know what is true from what is untrue?

As you ask this question, you’re trying to probe the source of truth for this person. The typical postmodern will shrug this off with a neither/nor kind of response, but there are three follow-up questions that you can use to unpack this one:

  • How do you determine what is authoritative? The answer will be either subjective (“I think/feel”) or objective (“whatever science/authorities/a holy book says”). An alternative answer could assume the truth of a particular paradigm (e.g., “As a New England Republican I believe…”).
  • How do you determine what is unimportant? Spam, telemarketers, junk mail, pop-up, and so on, we all run into things in life that just have no appeal to us.
  • How do you rely on logic? Or, what arguments do you find persuasive? Some may rely more on linear logic (good for understanding math equations, IQ) while others may look to more analogical forms of reasoning (good for understanding more complex human problems, EQ). In other words, if you tend to start with “just the facts” in your reasoning, you’re probably a linear thinker. If you tend to start with relationships in your reasoning, you’re probably an analogical thinker.

ethics

Doing (axiology):

Asking questions about ethics is always going to elicit some kind of response. We all have strong views how people should behave. It’s one thing to claim that there’s no ontological self-existing standard of right and wrong, but it’s another thing to say that you don’t mind if someone robs you or rapes your wife. We all believe in right and wrong, but why and how do we determine it?

How do you know right from wrong?

Here are two followup questions that I use to probe this topic:

  • Do you feel that what’s right and wrong changes based on a person’s culture or their own value judgements, or is it more absolute and fixed?
  • What is your view on universal human rights? What about rights for women and the LGBTQ community? What about activities such as rape, sex trafficking, or bullying? In other words, are there universal human rights that protect individuals, or do cultures or individuals get to make up what’s right or wrong in these cases?

Offering dialogue…

Be respectful and let your friend answer the questions. Don’t immediately start telling them that they’re wrong or that they’ve contradicted themselves. Expect a few contradictions along the way. Many of us haven’t spent much time thinking through complex questions and answers such as these. When they’re done answering each main question and any followup questions, feel free to ask about what seems inconsistent to you. Your friend may have an explanation that makes sense to them. But if they don’t have an explanation, you’re allowing them to discover that the house doesn’t have a roof rather than trying to break the news to them yourself.

Answering these questions yourself…

At some point in this dialogue, you’ll probably be asked how you would answer these questions. I would recommend asking to wait until you’re done. You want to understand them first in order to show them respect. Tell your friend that you’d be happy to share your answers to the questions, but you’d prefer not to influence their thinking or responses.

As a Christian, I’ve formed opinions on these questions too, and when the time is right, it’s worth sharing your views on these. Here are my answers to the questions above:

  • Where do we come from? All material and immaterial things find their source in God. Rewind the clock of time and you’ll find God at the beginning–God and nothing else. As a Christian, I state with certainty that there is something beyond what I can see and taste and feel and hear and smell that miraculously created all there is.
  • Where are we going? Everything that moves is going somewhere, and the same is true with humanity. God created people in order to build a true community of worshippers among whom his love and presence will abide forever. The whole of human history and the future of our race is the story of that plan’s seeming failure and ultimate success.
  • What is our ultimate meaning and purpose in life?  The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever. Nothing else will satisfy. Nothing else is truly permanent.
  • What is the nature of our problem and how do we solve it? Our problem is the problem of sin. Humankind has rebelled against God and has destroyed the peace he created in this world. Because of this brokenness, we all lean on a “crutch” in order to make our way through life. But is our crutch, our solution, to the problem of humanity truly reliable? For the Christian, the solution lies in God’s restorative work whereby he sent his own Son to take the penalty for our rebellion in order that people and nature might be made right again.
  • How can we be successful in life and where does real power come from? Success and power are counterintuitive for a Christian. Success comes when we give up what we have, deny ourselves, and follow Jesus (Matthew 16.24-26). God is the source of all power. We achieve power, not by making Herculean efforts to make ourselves like God, but by humbling ourselves like Jesus (Luke 22.25-26).
  • How do you know what is true from what is untrue? All truth is God’s truth. A Christian goes out into nature expecting to find normative laws, because there is something fixed that holds the universe together from the outside. We expect to find that truth is objective. And God’s truth is both factual and relational. He demands faith, but points us in the right direction through what is true in our experience.
  • How do you know right from wrong? I know that murder or rape or bullying is wrong because God gave me (1) a conscience, (2) human government, and (3) divine revelation. Conscience and culture’s definitions of right and wrong are subservient to Scripture. As a Christian, I always have a timeless and culturally-transcendent objective moral standard which explains the inherent assumption of morality that we’re born with.

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