Engaging people within the culture means we neither fight nor embrace the culture itself. The key is engaging people. Remember, culture is dynamic, it changes over time. But human nature doesn’t change from generation to generation. Internal change only takes place when a person’s soul is transformed with the new life The Gospel brings.
This is what Jesus referred to as new birth (John 3:3–8). It is something God brings about by His Spirit touching our spirit, our inner nature. The Lord produces this spiritual transformation in us as we personally trust in Him and surrender our lives to Him.
Jesus: The Great Engager
Jesus was a master at engaging people within their culture whether they approached Him as friends or foes. He related to people without typical cultural filters. Even His primary followers had different backgrounds and livelihoods.
A classic example is Jesus engaging a woman of questionable character at Jacob’s well near Sychar in Samaria. It was unexpected and culturally inappropriate for a Jewish man to engage a Samaritan woman in conversation. Consider His disciples’ reaction as they return from a shopping excursion and find Jesus talking with this woman —
And at this point His disciples came, and they marveled that He talked with a woman; yet no one said, “What do You seek?” or, “Why are You talking with her?” (John 4:27)
As the story continues, Jesus used this opportunity to train His disciples to follow His lead. He wanted them to see how and why He engaged people of different ethnicities and cultures (John 4:31–42).
When confronted by Jewish leaders about an adulteress caught in the act, which required stoning her according to Jewish Law, Jesus used the situation as an opportunity to display His discernment and wisdom (John 8:1–11). Somehow, Jesus convinced the leaders of their unworthiness to judge this woman.
So when they continued asking Him, He raised Himself up and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first.” And again He stooped down and wrote on the ground.
Then those who heard it, being convicted by their conscience, went out one by one, beginning with the oldest even to the last. And Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. (John 8:7–9)
Jesus didn’t excuse or overlook the woman’s sin while showing her great mercy.
When Jesus had raised Himself up and saw no one but the woman, He said to her, “Woman, where are those accusers of yours? Has no one condemned you?”
She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said to her, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.” (John 8:10–11)
We also see how wisely and graciously Jesus engaged people in His encounter with a rich young ruler. Jesus listened to him first and allowed the young man to declare his moral goodness (Mark 10:17–27).
When Jesus tells the young man something difficult to accept, He showed compassion for the young man.
Then Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “One thing you lack: Go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, take up the cross, and follow Me.” (Mark 10:21 GW)
Throughout the Gospels, examples abound of Jesus engaging a variety of people in unexpected ways. He showed us how we can engage people in gracious and respectful ways.
Reaching Younger Generations within a Cultural Shift
If the Evangelical church wants to reach young people with The Gospel, it needs to engage them in dialogue, developing genuine relationships tempered by respect and love, as Jesus did.
Years ago, a friend of mine, a well-known career missionary, shared a message at a missions conference on how important it is to dialog with people when sharing the gospel. He used the example of Jesus as a young man in the Temple (Luke 2:41–49). My friend pointed out three things …
- Jesus sat among the teachers
- He listened to them
- He asked questions
If we are to engage people, we need to spend time with them, humbly listening, asking, and answering questions.
A Message to Boomers
I am a holdover from the Jesus People movement and a baby boomer. So I say this as a boomer to other boomers. We need to do more listening than talking. We don’t know everything. Even when we think we do, we need to follow the example and lead of Jesus in the Temple, with the Samaritan woman, with the adulteress and her accusers, and the rich young ruler.
I believe dialogue was an important element of the fruitfulness and influence of the Jesus Movement. It was for me. I remember many conversations with people who were patient and gracious with all of my questions. They helped me move past less fruitful conversations. But I also remember being approached with prepared, one-way presentations of The Gospel. When I realized these people weren’t interested in engaging me personally, it turned me off. And then there was the time they threw me out of a church because of my challenging questions. Needless to say, this hindered my acceptance of The Gospel.
A monologue approach coming across as self-righteous or self-important didn’t work then and won’t be effective now. Personal engagement and humility are far more effective, just as we see with Jesus.
If you’d like to consider these thoughts further, here are three more sources I’ve found helpful—
3 Reasons Upcoming Cultural Changes Will Hit The Bible Belt Especially Hard — And What To Do About It — by Karl Vaters
Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age — by Alan O NobleGod of Tomorrow: How to Overcome the Fears of Today and Renew Your Hope for the Future — by Caleb Kaltenbach
Photo by Louie Castro-Garcia on Unsplash