“The discipleship process starts when we engage our culture and communities with the goal of introducing nonbelievers to the Gospel and to the Person of Jesus Christ.” —Steve Murrell, 100 Years from Now
This principle has become part of our Christian formation as individuals since we made a decision to surrender our lives under the Lordship of Christ and became part of His Church.
We have heard it. We have been taught about it. We prayed for it. And we were equipped and empowered to do it. God has been faithful to fulfill His promise to redeem the nations in and through us, His church.
Disciples being added to the church are one of the points of our celebration, and what we celebrate gets reinforced and repeated.
We also cannot deny the fact that in our journey of making disciples, we have encountered repeated mistakes or unhealthy practices that produce difficult questions in us.
These are concerns that can be navigated within a church community, where crucial conversations should happen. It would be tough if these challenges are not dealt with in a safe place or if we did not find enough courage to approach someone about them. If we let it linger, we go through the treadmill of trying harder.
We could also neglect the possibilities that might lie ahead if we choose to sweep them under the rug.
This makes us forget that the people we have been discipling are humans who have complex family, cultural, and religious backgrounds.
It would be a disservice to these people if the accepted norms and established programs are given higher value than being open to the movement of the Spirit in the individuals and the groups of people whom God might have chosen for us to engage with the gospel.
How do we engage a culture in front of us that is different from ours and is constantly evolving?
As I ponder about the way we engaged the question, instead of coming up with techniques and strategies, we should have talked about what the Bible, inspired by the Holy Spirit, decisively speaks about the changes that are happening and how God intends us to be a witness to the culture that goes through paradigm shifts.
In the first century church, Paul was one of the main figures who courageously engaged a different group of people, and this example revealed to the early Christian community how the gospel can work beyond their understanding.
Early on, Jesus made it clear for Paul that he was going to be instrumental in reaching out and establishing a community that serves as God’s witnesses to a diverse culture.
We can also see that among the disciples at that time, he was the least likely to reach the non-Jewish world with the gospel.
He grew up as an individual immersed in a community hoping for the coming Messiah and the kingdom of God. His zeal for this future hope was what constituted and shaped Paul’s being.
As a Jew formed by their tradition, his hope for the coming Messiah is going to happen as they persevere in living the narrative of their inner circle. It would’ve sounded something like this:
The Lord would send Messiah to restore the kingdom if they, as God’s chosen people, would preserve the purity of their community. The culture around us is so corrupt! If there would be more righteous like us and less sinners like the prostitutes, the tax collectors, and the ceremonially unclean people then the Messiah would arrive to restore the glory of the kingdom.
For Paul, it is logically, historically, and culturally unacceptable to hear that the Messiah is the executed man from Nazareth until Jesus confronted him in person.
While participating in the mission, Paul’s view of how the gospel works was broadened.
In his third missionary journey, Paul was staying in a non-Jewish mission field. He wrote a letter to a diverse community of believers in Rome that was having a hard time finding their focus to which they gather and do the great commission.
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”
It seems that this confession is something that comes from Paul’s various encounters with the unimaginable work of the gospel no matter the complexity of the culture we are called to engage.
Here are a few realities we can learn from Paul’s reflection of the gospel as we reach out to the ever-expanding and growing culture of the world.
When he said “I am not ashamed of the gospel,” he meant that he had identified his entire life in the nature and narrative of the gospel.
When Paul started to be immersed in the mission, Christianity was still a minority group within Judaism. He witnessed the turn of events that led to the gospel expanding its work in the non-Jewish world, as prophesied in Scripture.
That meant that in order for them to fully participate in the movement of the Spirit among those people, they had to die to their “Us versus Them” attitude towards people who were not like them, specifically non-Jews.
When Paul courageously did his part in reaching the non-Jews, it was not an easy task because the opposition came from the culture outside and the inner Christian circle he belonged to.
Imagine the tensions Paul lived while staying faithful to the community he was doing the mission with and the effort to include the non-Jews, a group of people who were unlikely to be reached by the gospel in the lens of the Jewish custom.
There must have been a lot of dying to self, taking up the cross, and following Christ in that journey.
What transformation might the Holy Spirit be working in us as individuals and as a community so we could effectively be a witness of the gospel to the diverse culture that we are in?
. . . it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.
Early on in Paul’s ministry, he started with engaging Jews in the synagogues. Upon facing opposition from the Jews, Paul devoted himself to the Gentiles as a new harvest field for the gospel.
That was just the beginning of his journey of witnessing how the gospel works uniquely for everyone. When he went back to his sending church in Antioch, he was welcomed by a community facing challenges in embracing diversity which was a hindrance for the gospel’s work. It took the council of Jerusalem for these matters to be settled. They agreed that the non-Jews don’t have to conform to the Jewish tradition to live out their newfound faith in Jesus.
Paul stood upon his conviction about the work of the gospel to the non-Jews in light of Scripture, the witness of the Spirit, and engaging in difficult conversations within the community where he belonged.
How do we live with the tension of living with our community and exploring how to be a witness of the gospel to those who do not seem to be a “good fit” to our church community?
For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith . . .
What really concerned the Jews about the coming in of people who did not share their culture and tradition was the risk of pagan practices mixing with Christianity.
For Paul, the gospel is where the righteousness of God is revealed towards mankind, and its outworking is from faith to faith.
The result of having a foundation of trusting obedience in the person of Jesus and faith in His works is righteous living.
We always say that Christianity is about a relationship with Jesus, and yet we are also the same people who are prone to forcing new believers to conform to our lens of how Christians should live out their faith.
We cannot and are not supposed to fix the brokenness of the people we are called to engage with the gospel. Only God can and will do that. But we are called to stay in relationship with them and allow the Holy Spirit to enable us to live out the righteousness of Christ within our community.
How do we respond if the people we are reaching or discipling don’t seem to go the path that we expect when it comes to living out their faith in Jesus?
If we see the gospel as the central narrative and the working power where we do our discipleship efforts, then we can’t fully measure its outworking in the context of our programs, strategies, and traditions.
If we believe that in Christ, God creates something new out of the old life that exists, what could possibly emerge from the diverse culture if we allow the love of Christ to control us as we courageously engage it?