As Christians, we are called by God to be Christ's ambassadors. Now that's quite a job description! In order to fulfill our glorious task, though, we are going to have to step outside of our insulated Christian circles and learn how to bridge the gap between Christ's church and today's world.
John A. Studebaker, Jr., is a field associate with Probe Ministries. He received the B.S. in material science engineering from Michigan State University and the M.Div. from the International School of Theology. He is presently working toward a M.A. in the philosophy of religion and ethics and Talbot School of Theology.
In college I received a minor in civil engineering. In class we learned how to design one of our world's most important structures- -bridges. Bridges are fascinating, I think, because they are designed to bring things together--land masses, roads, and people. I've found my life as a Christian to be exciting for the very same reason--because now I get to be a bridge-builder for Christ. Of course, Jesus is the only mediator between God and man (1 Tim. 2:5); but, acting under His authority, Christians have the privilege of building bridges also. What kind of bridges are still left to be built? Non-Christians often have barriers that keep them from considering Christ: intellectual, cultural, and moral barriers. We can be their bridges to the gospel. Just as Jesus left heaven to come and mingle with the sinful world, He's left us with the glorious task of creatively penetrating our world with the good news. In a sense, then, there may never be a time when we are more like Jesus than when we are bridging this cultural gap with the gospel.
How does one become a bridge-builder for Christ? While it's true we need to understand theology and the gospel message, we must also understand what non-Christians believe, how they think, and how they've been impacted by today's culture. And then, as ambassadors for Christ, we become the bridge between the church and the world by communicating the gospel into the context of the non-Christian mindset.
I think most people today view cross-cultural ministry as something performed in a foreign nation. But America today has become very secular, developing a culture of its own in an ideological sense--one very different from the culture of the church. So today, we need to view our American culture as a place of opportunity for cross-cultural ministry! We do this by investigating the world views of our culture. According to David Hesselgrave in his book Communicating Christ Cross- Culturally, "understanding another person's world view (or belief system) is the starting point for communicating the gospel." (1) By showing an understanding of and interest in another person's beliefs, we gain credibility and integrity before that person--and probably even a hearing for the Christian message.
One time, for example, I was sharing Christ with a Chinese student. After listening intently for forty-five minutes to his belief in Taoism, and asking several questions, he finally asked me, "What do you believe?" What an opening to share the gospel! As we learn to investigate the world views of our culture, we'll even begin to enjoy talking to non-Christians.
A bridge-builder is one who has made a commitment to understand people with different backgrounds and beliefs in order to make Christianity relevant to these people. In order to become a bridge- builder, though, we have to go through a process--one we'll look at in this pamphlet. First, we need to examine the isolation problem found in many of today's churches. Then we'll look at Christ's model for ministry which overcomes our isolation. Next, we'll find out how our lives can build bridges to the world. Finally, we look at the need for education in order to construct better bridges.
Imagine receiving a phone call informing you that you'd been chosen to become the American Ambassador to China. You'd consider that quite an honor! How would you prepare for your task? You'd want to do a thorough study of Chinese culture and customs. If you simply said, "No problem, I'm an American!" and neglected this study, you'd find yourself very ineffective as an ambassador.
Now imagine if Christ were to call you, as an American, to be His ambassador to America. How would you prepare for that? Well, in fact this is what Christ has called us to (2 Cor. 5:20). But what if we were to say, "No problem, I'm a Christian!" but neglected any attempt to understand our own culture?
Surprisingly this is what many people in the church today have done. Some believers have actually avoided any connection with the world. Jan Johnson in her Moody Monthly article "Escaping the Christian Ghetto" has called these people "Rabbit-Hole Christians." According to Johnson, "In the morning they pop out of their safe Christian homes, hold their breath at work, scurry home to their families and then off to their Bible Studies, and finally end the day praying for the unbelievers they safely avoided all day."(2)
In early America, Christians enjoyed discussing philosophy and theology with believers and nonbelievers alike. New England was a community that fostered intellectual pursuit. Their young men, for example, studied the classics and the Hebrew Bible in depth.
Today's Christians, however, are often viewed by the world as anti-intellectuals, as people who have neglected their minds in order to become "spiritual." But with this mentality, we are unable to address the critical issues of our day, and so our culture begins to look elsewhere for answers: to the secular humanists, for example.
What is the root of this separation mindset? Well, many believers today hold to a pietistic view of the Christian life. Pietism began in the 1800s, but it had a certain deficiency. According to Francis Schaeffer, "it was 'platonic' in that it made a sharp division between the 'spiritual' world and the 'material' world. The totality of human experience was not afforded a proper place." (3)
This pietistic view of Christian living, I think, has sapped the real life out of the Christian experience for many people. That's because one's spirituality never quite comes "down" far enough to integrate with the real world. We still end up trying to be nice Christians, but too many areas of our humanity get left out. It no longer looks very attractive to those first investigating the faith, either. In fact, some nonbelievers get scared off!
How can we change this pattern? We must remove this "sharp division" by finding out how our spiritual life works in the physical world, by developing a biblical world view. As we learn to apply the Christian faith to our own life and world we become able to tell nonbelievers how it applies to theirs also, and this opens doors for the gospel. But without a well-thought-out faith we don't feel comfortable taking our message into the middle of the marketplace of modern ideas, and so we stay isolated. What we actually need is a model for building bridges within the complexity of today's culture, one that makes Christianity relevant to the lives of real people. Christ Himself has provided this model in a absolutely amazing way. What is this model?
The model is based on the character of God. The Bible presents to us a God who continually seeks man by entering into man's cultural context. In the New Testament we first find God seeking man by taking on a "contextualized" form--that of a man. Contextualization means becoming identified with the opposing party and requires breaking through cultural barriers in order to establish communication.
Through the incarnation of Christ, God crossed a rather large "cultural gap" to seek man, and identify with man, by actually becoming a man. God took on our context, and in doing so, He broke through two barriers that kept man from having a relationship with Him. What were these two barriers?
First Christ broke through our humanity barrier. Christ took on the flesh, cultural patterns, thought patterns, practices, and frailty associated with humanity. He left His world and entered into our world. And then second, Christ broke through the sin barrier. He went to the cross and became sin on our behalf so we could be forgiven of our sins and come to know God personally.
Not only did God seek man by becoming a man, His commitment to seek man continued after Christ's death and resurrection, but took on a different form. His communication model, one still involving contextualization, continues through His people. In 2 Corinthians 5:20 we see that God has called every believer to be an ambassador for Christ. How do we go about this task? By following Christ's model, and breaking through the same two barriers He did. First, we need to break through the humanity barrier. Motivated by His love, we also need to enter into the world of nonbelievers, seeking to understand their context, and finding areas of common ground. This means that, without compromising, we are to get involved with real people and their needs, struggles, and intellectual doubts. Second, we need to help people overcome the sin barrier. We do this by sharing the gospel within their context, in a way that "makes sense" within another person's cultural and intellectual makeup.
According to Francis Schaeffer, "[A foreign missionary] must learn the language of the thought-forms of the people to whom one speaks. So it is with the Christian Church. Its responsibility is not only to hold to the basic, scriptural principles of the Christian faith, but to communicate these unchanging truths `into' the generation in which one is living."(4)
Now let's turn our attention to how to use this model of building bridges for the gospel that Christ has given us.
When non-Christians encounter us, what impressions do they walk away with? Do they simply see another "religion," or do they encounter a Christianity that is relevant outside the church and makes good rational sense in every area of human life?
As Christ took on the context of human flesh, so we must enter into the context of today's world. The basis for our ministry, therefore, is not only found in sharing the truths of the Christian faith, but also in utilizing our own humanity as an actual channel for relating these truths.
The early church repeatedly followed Christ's model by building human bridges in order to communicate the gospel within the context of the audience. In Acts 17, Paul shared the gospel with the polytheistic and philosophically-oriented Greeks differently than he did with the monotheistic, traditionally-oriented Jews. He could do this because he had a deep understanding of each culture. Oftentimes in the New Testament, certain individuals were able to build bridges because of common cultural back-grounds. Their very lives and heritage built a natural bridge. Timothy, for example, could easily minister to Greeks in his hometown because of his Greek heritage. At other times, though, there is no apparent common ground, and we have to learn how nonbelievers are thinking and accommodate accordingly. For example, when Paul needed Timothy to accompany him on a missionary trip, he had Timothy circumcised. Why? Because they were going to come into contact with Jews who saw circumcision as very important.
Christ Himself clearly took a contextual approach to ministry. In John 3, Christ confronts Nicodemus, a teacher of the law, with some deep theological insights. But in John 4, as Jesus casually converses with the woman at the well about her immoral past, He uses the well as a simple illustration of the "living water" He could provide. In each case, Jesus showed genuine respect for that person's background and mindset by tailoring the gospel appropriately. Likewise, an ambassador for Christ must show utmost respect to the people he is trying to reach, and to their mindset. By demonstrating a deep understanding of culture, we gain integrity and credibility with our audience.
The key is that our very lives are the bridges, or channels, for the gospel. When God created man He gave man dominion over the world (Gen. 1:28). God was essentially giving every person the assignment of demonstrating His character on earth. As Christ's ambassadors, He has given each of us specific areas in which we can become channels for His love and truth as we turn these areas over to Him. These areas include our talents, burdens, educational fields, abilities, and spiritual gifts. Whether a person is a homemaker, a dentist, a Ph.D. candidate, or a farmer, he or she needs to do an extensive study regarding how biblical truth provides a foundation for that "platform" God has given. Often He will show a person a specific subculture that only he or she can reach.
In order to become a bridge-builder between the church and the world, we need to be educated about both, and also about how to integrate biblical principles into today's culture. So, becoming an effective ambassador for Christ requires knowledge of the following three areas:
As bridge-builders we first need to develop a thorough knowledge of the character of God, the Person of Christ, and the salvation message. As we do, the Holy Spirit incorporates this knowledge into our personal lives and ministries. Many churches today, however, have downplayed the importance of theology as a real solution to the problems of our nation; some have even adopted an anti- theological attitude. According to London and Wiseman in their book Pastors at Risk, "Today long-held assumptions about doctrinal devotion no longer apply. Fewer and fewer people choose a church or continue attending because of biblical teaching or particular tradition."(5) Instead, we need to develop a hunger for theology, and for becoming theologically educated. You may want to start by reading J. I.Packer's classic book, Knowing God,(6) or another good theological work.
We also need to understand the people of our world. This includes the biblical nature of man, the prevailing world views today, and how these world views show their faces in today's media, attitudes, education, government, etc. Also, what are the needs of our world today? There are physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual needs to consider. But to address these needs we must be educated. One book I would recommend is R. C. Sproul's Lifeviews,(7) which will not only help you understand the American culture better, but help you bring your faith into that culture.
As we begin to dialogue with non-believers within our own fields, we'll actually learn how to use those fields as channels for biblical truth. Nonbelievers need to see that a biblical foundation works within their own field of interest before they adopt this foundation for their entire life. So we need to become thoroughly educated regarding the biblical foundation of our own field, whether it be science, marketing, education, medicine, law, childrearing, factory work, whatever. Eventually you'll be able to develop a specific strategy for ministry within your educational or occupational field, turning it into a mission field.
A group of lawyers, for example, could start a legal defense program for Christian education in their area, or could teach a Sunday school class on "A Biblical Basis for Law and Justice." A farmer could train lay people in how to start a garden, and open it to the community, relating biblical principles. A panel of Christian doctors could teach a night sex education course for high school and junior high school students (incorporating the physiological, psychological, and biblical/moral perspectives) at the church--and open it up to the entire community. The sky is literally the limit.
The question we must face, though, is whether or not this sort of education and hard work is really important to us. Why has the church lost its place as a dominant force within our American culture? Simply because Christians have neglected this sort of study--and frequently replaced it with an emotionalized, trivialized Christianity.
Consider making a commitment before God to educate yourself in such a way as to turn your occupational or educational field into a mission field. There is nothing more thrilling than living a life modeled after the Incarnation of Jesus Christ.
1. David Hesselgrave, Communicating Christ Cross- Culturally (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978), p. 121.
2. Jan Johnson, "Escaping the Christian Ghetto," Moody Monthly (Nov. 1987), pp. 81-82.
3. Francis A. Schaeffer, The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer, 5 vols. (Westchester, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1982), vol. 5, p. 424.
4. Ibid., vol. 1, p. 207.
5. H.B. London and Neil Wiseman, Pastors at Risk (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1993), p. 36
6. J.I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Press, 1973).
7. R.C. Sproul, Lifeviews (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell, 1986)
What is Probe?
Probe Ministries is a non-profit corporation whose mission is to reclaim the primacy of Christian thought and values in Western culture through media, education, and literature. In seeking to accomplish this mission, Probe provides perspective on the integration of the academic disciplines and historic Christianity.
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Copyright 1994 John Studebaker