Years ago, there was a lawsuit brought against a doctor who passed the scene of an auto accident without stopping to render medical assistance. One of the people in that accident died from a loss of blood, so the dead man’s family then sued the doctor who was seen passing by. The court actually ruled against the doctor and awarded a great deal of money to the family. The judge felt that the doctor’s knowledge automatically made him responsible to assist in the saving of life. Now, I want you to think about that for a moment. The doctor’s knowledge automatically made him responsible to assist in the saving of life.
In the same way, the fact that we as Christians have a knowledge of God and His word makes us responsible to assist in the saving of souls! Those of us who are Christians are under obligation to everyone we come in contact with. And I think that’s what Paul meant when he said, “I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish.” (Romans 1:14). Those of us who are Christians never go to bed at night with our work done, and we never rise in the morning with nothing to do. Bringing people to Christ is a constant responsibility.
But just as surely as we have a responsibility to share the message of the gospel, we also have an obligation to share it in such a way that will allow it the greatest opportunity to be received.
Allen Mann was a missionary to the Philippines. He once said, “Missionaries stress the importance of learning the language and culture of the people whom they have chosen to evangelize. They need to make Jesus relevant and understandable to the people they approach. They cannot win others to Jesus if they cannot communicate with them in a way that can be understood.”
I would not only agree with that, but I would say that that’s true not only for missionaries but for the rest of us as well. If we are going to share Christ with the world, we need to communicate in a way that they will listen to and understand.
Paul put it this way in I Corinthians 9, “Even though I am a free man with no master, I have become a slave to all people to bring many to Christ. When I was with the Jews, I lived like a Jew to bring the Jews to Christ. When I was with those who follow the Jewish law, I too lived under that law. Even though I am not subject to the law, I did this so I could bring to Christ those who are under the law.
“When I am with the Gentiles who do not follow the Jewish law, I too live apart from that law so I can bring them to Christ. But I do not ignore the law of God; I obey the law of Christ. When I am with those who are weak, I share their weakness, for I want to bring the weak to Christ. Yes, I try to find common ground with everyone, doing everything I can to save some. I do everything to spread the Good News and share in its blessings.” (I Corinthians 9:19-23, NLT)
Have you ever hosted a party or gathering where two different groups of friends and acquaintances come together? Maybe you throw a little get-together at Christmas time and invite some neighbors and your coworkers. They don’t know each other. The only thing they have in common is you.
In a situation like that, you realize just how much adapting you need to do depending on who you’re talking with. Maybe with one friend you talk sports, with another you talk music, and with another you talk movies. You have an interest in all of those things, or at least you’re a bit knowledgeable, so you’re not being fake, but if you know that your music-connoisseur friend couldn’t care less about football, you’re not going to ask her if she saw the Carolina Panthers play last weekend. You adapt. You become a music-lover when you’re talking with that friend, and a sports-nut when you’re talking to someone else.
Paul recognized that Christian ministry is all about adapting. And while the message can’t be modified, changed, or compromised, Paul makes it clear that we can’t just use the same approach with everyone we come into contact with.
We need an effective way to communicate the gospel of Christ to the people we come in contact with. So, from our text in I Corinthians 9, I’d like to suggest a few guidelines.
1. We Need to Adapt Our Approach to the Audience
I’m not talking about changing the message or watering it down so that it doesn’t offend anyone. I’m talking about changing the way we communicate that message so that people will listen to it.
And isn’t that what Jesus did when he talked with people? Jesus preached to people who had heard it all before. They knew a million arguments for everything that could be said, just like a lot of people today who are raised in a religious environment. As soon as you start talking, folks will often tune you out. They don’t listen because they’ve heard it all before. So how do you talk to people like that, people who think they’ve already got it all figured out?
What Jesus did was he used parables, stories. He’d sneak around to the back door and catch them. The parable of the Good Samaritan is a good example. A man came to Jesus and wanted to know who his neighbor was and Jesus started talking about a Samaritan helping a wounded man on the side of the road. And before people realized it, Jesus had taught them that our neighbor is anyone who is in need. He took a Biblical concept and he communicated it in such a way that people were willing to listen to him.
In I Corinthians 9, Paul said he adapted himself and his message to the people he was working with: “When I was with the Jews, I lived like a Jew to bring the Jews to Christ. When I was with those who follow the Jewish law, I too lived under that law…When I am with the Gentiles who do not follow the Jewish law, I too live apart from that law so I can bring them to Christ.” (I Corinthians 9:20-21, NLT)
Paul said, “When I was with the Jews, I lived like a Jew.” When Paul preached to Jews, he acted like a Jew. Now, because he was a Christian, he was no longer bound by the ceremonies, rituals and traditions of Judaism. But if following those would open a door for preaching to the Jews, then he would gladly do it because his motive was to help Jews to know Jesus Christ.
So, when Paul wanted to take Timothy with him in his ministry, he had him circumcised “because of the Jews who were in that region” where he intended to go (Acts 16). Timothy’s circumcision was not a requirement by God. But it could be of great benefit to their ministry among the Jews and it was a small price to pay for the prospect of winning some of those Jews to Christ.
Because Jews saw themselves as still under the law of Moses, Paul would act as though if he were under the law of Moses when he worked among them. He didn’t believe or teach that the law of Moses saved people. But, following that law was a way of opening doors to work among the Jews.
So, when Paul worked among the Jewish people, he didn’t offer them pork chops for dinner. He didn’t ask them if they wanted to do some work with him on Saturday. No, Paul was with Jewish people, he acted as if he were under the law so that he could show them their freedom in Christ.
But then he said, “When I am with the Gentiles who do not follow the Jewish law, I too live apart from that law.” When Paul was preaching to Gentiles, he became like a Gentile. He identified as closely as possible with Gentile customs. He ate what they ate, went where they went, and dressed the way they dressed. He didn’t make fun of them because of their ignorance of God’s Word, but rather he used God’s Word to show them a Savior, and to show them just how much they needed that Savior.
Paul didn’t change God’s Word; he didn’t change God’s definition of right and wrong; he didn’t change that basic unshakable truth of the need for faith in Jesus Christ. But he adapted his methods to communicate that message to different people.
As Paul put it in verse 22, “I try to find common ground with everyone.” Paul was willing adapt in any way necessary if that would help bring someone closer to Christ. Paul adapted to his audience.
We have recorded several different speeches that Paul gave in the book of Acts. And it’s interesting to notice how his message varied with the audience. If all we’re supposed to do is just take one sermon and give it to everybody, Paul should have used the same message wherever he went. But notice the variety. Paul wanted to be relevant when he was in Antioch, in Lystra, in Athens. Everywhere he went, he adapted his message to the particular group he was speaking to.
For example, when he was preaching in Antioch of Psidia, to a group composed primarily of Jews, his message was geared toward that:
“Men of Israel and you who fear God, listen. The God of this people Israel chose our fathers and made the people great during their stay in the land of Egypt, and with uplifted arm he led them out of it. And for about forty years he put up with them in the wilderness. And after destroying seven nations in the land of Canaan, he gave them their land as an inheritance. All this took about 450 years. And after that he gave them judges until Samuel the prophet. (Acts 13:16-20).
Then Paul went on to tell about Saul and David and Abraham and the prophets before eventually talking about Christ. That was the kind of sermon that a Jewish audience could follow along with very easily.
But later, Paul was in Athens, a city of Greek philosophy and tradition — the city of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Speaking at the Areopagus, with the Acropolis, the Parthenon and the statue of Apollo in view, he didn’t just pull out his sermon outline from Antioch. If he had done that, he would have lost his audience completely. Instead he said:
“Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” (Acts 17:22-23).
You see, the Greeks had many gods, so they had altars to Zeus, to Hera, to Ares, to Athena, to Apollo, to Aphrodite, and on and on and on. And just in case they accidentally left one god out, they didn’t want to make him angry, so they had an altar to the unknown god. Paul said, “I can tell by all these altars that you are a very religious people. What I’d like to talk to you about today is this unknown god – the God you don’t know is the God who created this universe.
Then Paul quoted from a couple of their own prophets. One of them said, “In him we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28). Another said, “For we are indeed his offspring.” So Paul talked about how those quotes relate to Jehovah God.
You’ll notice that Paul didn’t start in the Old Testament. He didn’t quote a lot of scriptures. If he had done that, those Gentiles would have tuned him out from the start. He started with their own philosophers. He adapted his message to meet the audience.
I’d like for you to think for a few moments about the people around you that you need to share Christ with – your co-workers, your neighbors, your friends. I hope that your desire is to share the gospel with those people that you talk with day by day. But how do we adapt the message of Christ to them? One of the best ways is to….
2. Begin with Felt Needs
Several years ago, Mike Cope and his wife were visiting in a small congregation. During the course of the sermon, the preacher covered every sin in the Bible plus a few extra. His main point, though, was the sin of mixed swimming. But, as far as he could tell, Mike said that he and his wife were the only ones in that audience under the age of 80, and they were visitors. I get the feeling that his sermon may have been a bit irrelevant, considering the audience.
And yet, I wonder how many of us preachers preach on weekends speaking to people in irrelevant ways, talking about things they don’t care about, speaking about items that don’t concern them. If we are going to reach the people around us for Christ, we need to be relevant. We need to give consideration to the people we’re talking to.
If you start out talking to people about premillennialism, instrumental music and Calvinism, don’t be surprised if folks just filter you out. Everybody has a filter. You’ve got one. I’ve got one. And a filter will strain out what I don’t want to hear. It sifts through everything people say and allows me to ignore what I don’t want to hear.
Many of the people you know don’t care about the gospel. Now, I realize some people have said, “Everybody’s just waiting to hear the good news of Christ.” But I don’t think that’s true. Studies show that about 60% of non-Christians are very satisfied with life. They aren’t just sitting around waiting for somebody to knock on their door and tell them about something better. Now, granted, what they mean by happiness may be very shallow, but they at least feel satisfied with what they have in their life. So, we need to work around their filters and begin with their needs.
So, if you start by talking with people about their fears and anxieties, or how they’ve been hurt, or about the struggles they’re dealing with in their families, they’re more likely to listen to you. That’s the principle of beginning with felt needs. Begin with the needs that people already have in their lives.
Harold Robinson in his book Biblical Preaching put it this way: “Seldom do normal people lose sleep over the Jebusites, the Canaanites, or the Perizzites, or even about what Abraham, Moses, or Paul has said or done. They lie awake wondering about grocery prices, crop failures, quarrels with a girlfriend, diagnosis of a malignancy, a frustrating sex life, the rat race where only rats seem to win. If the sermon does not make much difference in that world, they wonder if it makes any difference at all.”
Abraham Maslow is not a very good person to get your theology from, but he’s done a lot of work in psychology especially in the area of felt needs. Maslow said we have different levels of needs, and you can’t address higher ones until the basic ones are met. In other words, if people are hungry, if their stomachs are growling, they’re not going to listen to your religious beliefs. First, they need to eat, and then maybe they’ll listen.
Maslow said the most basic needs are physiological ones — clothing, food, water, shelter. And I believe the church needs to minister in these areas. Whether it’s helping out disaster victims from a flood or a tornado, or helping someone in the community who’s been burned out of a home, or whatever, the church needs to be there.
A few years ago, there was a church in Smithfield, Virginia that gathered clothing at the church building. Then, one day they ran an ad in the paper amidst all the garage sales, offering to give away clothing to anyone who needed it. And many people showed up at their building to get some clothes. I think that’s great. I think it’s the sort of thing Jesus would have done.
It’s the same principle behind the food pantry that has been such a vital part of our ministry here at Cruciform. We want to try to provide in some way for people’s most basic needs because people won’t care about their ultimate needs until we’ve addressed their fundamental needs. Are their families hurting? Then we need to help them with the family. Do they need food? Then we need to give them food.
And when you read through the gospels, you see that that’s what Jesus did time and again. When people were hungry, he fed them, even thousands at a time. When people came to him who were hurting, or sick, or lame, Jesus took care of their physical needs.
In John 9, Jesus healed a blind man in Jerusalem. Only after he regained his sight, did Jesus say, “[By the way], Do you believe in the Son of God?” (John 9:35). The blind man said, “[I don’t know.] Who is he?” (9:36). “Jesus said, ‘You have both seen him and it is he who is talking with you.'” (9:37). Before any teaching took place, Jesus first met the most basic need in his life.
On another occasion, Jesus met a woman who had made the trip out to Jacob’s Well. Jesus asked her, “Can I have a drink?” It surprised her that a man would speak with a woman, or that a Jew would speak with a Samaritan, and yet I think it made her feel significant in a way that nobody had ever made her feel before. Then Jesus said, “Would you like to know about living water?” It’s another beautiful example of beginning where somebody is — meeting their immediate needs.
Is it manipulation if we do this? It’s entirely possible. If I feed you just so that I can baptize you, then I’m trying to manipulate you. If my love or my friendship is dependent on your response to me, then I’m trying to manipulate you. If everything I do and say is contingent on getting some particular action out of you, that’s manipulation and it’s not love.
Jesus didn’t just meet the needs of people so that they would listen to his message, but he met their needs because he “had compassion” on them. He cared about them. And that’s what I’m saying we need to do. The old saying has a lot of truth in it: “They won’t care how much we know until they know how much we care.”
We say we’re soul-winners, and that’s true. But we’re more than that. We’re people-lovers. And if we can relieve some anxiety, if we can take care of somebody’s kids and give them some relief, if we can take a meal when somebody’s had a death in the family, if we can include a neighbor who needs a friend into our activities — then we’re meeting people’s needs and we’re laying the foundation for successfully communicating the gospel.
3. Seek Eventually to Meet Ultimate Needs
We have to begin where people are, and we don’t manipulate them to get them some other place. But because our faith is important to us, it is our desire that ultimately our relationships will lead others to become Christians.
Paul said, “When I was with those who follow the Jewish law, I too lived under that law… I did this so I could bring to Christ those who are under the law. When I am with the Gentiles who do not follow the Jewish law, I too live apart from that law so I can bring them to Christ.”
Our ultimate goal is not just helping people with food or clothes. Our goal is bringing people to Christ. And to do that, we have to actually say something to people about Jesus. Eventually we want to be able to say to someone, “Sometime I’d like to sit down and share with you some things that are important to me.” And then, we take the opportunity to talk about:
The Bible. It’s the guideline for our lives, our authority for what we do and say and believe. It contains the answers to all the problems that we face in life. It’s the inspired word of God.
Jesus. People need to know that he is what he claimed to be, both God and man. He’s deity and yet humanity, the Son of God who died on the cross for our sins.
Sin. It’s not just a sledge hammer that preachers use to drive somebody to guilt, but it’s what’s wrong with this world. It’s what’s responsible for the chaos in each of our lives, and keeps us separated from our Creator. It’s what’s wrong with us.
Grace. Grace is the answer to sin. Grace is what caused the Son of God to leave his home in heaven and come to this earth to die on the cross. Not because of who we are or what we’ve done, but simply because he loved us and he wants us to spend eternity with him.
Faith. We have to reach up to God, believing that he is and trusting that he will keep his promises to us. A faith that will everything it can to follow God, keeping his commandments including the command to be baptized, where we come in contact with the blood of Christ and enter into that special relationship with him.
The church. We need to talk to others about the church as a fellowship — a group that meets together, encourages each other, and bears one another’s burdens.
Commitment. When I’m baptized into Christ, everything becomes new. Serving God becomes the top priority in my life.
Basically, it’s a matter of sharing all those things that are important to me. Not saying, “I’m better than you are because I’m a Christian and you’re not!” But like a hungry man who has found a loaf of bread, those of us who are Christians have been blessed to be able to find a beautiful life in Jesus Christ, and we want to share that good news with others. That’s our task today as we go out into the world — to communicate the gospel in such a way as to bring people to Christ.
So, what’s the best way for you to do that? That’s up to you. But, whatever you do, you need to adapt your message to those that you’re trying to reach. You begin with their felt needs, those things that are on their minds right now, and eventually lead them to their ultimate needs that only Jesus Christ can fill.