At the heart of Christianity is the need to proclaim the Gospel of the Kingdom. As I’ve pondered this task in today’s post-Christian world, there seem to be numerous lessons in Acts on the role of the Holy Spirit in this process. The beginning is at Pentecost, when He was given to believers in a new way. I started writing the following some time ago, as a first reflection on letting the Spirit lead in this task, but finished it recently with a more complete understanding.
It started with the wind that day, two millennia ago, when the Holy Spirit came upon believers in such force that its echo remains with us now. The wind, then tongues of flame that settled above each person. No one, not even those warned by Jesus Himself, knew fully what this was about. But far from a spectacular lighting display, the Holy Spirit began to change the believers themselves for His purpose.
Empowered by the Spirit, believers began to speak to the crowds gathered there for the festival. The crowds were in Jerusalem to celebrate the festival of Pentecost, and many had traveled large distances to be there. Most spoke Greek and/or Aramaic, because those were the common languages of the region. Greek would have been the language of business, much like English is today. At home, though, they would have spoken the region’s common tongue. They wouldn’t have expected to hear it here, in Jerusalem. But suddenly, that is exactly what happened, suddenly they were hearing people talking in their native tongues here, far from home. This was unreal, as the speakers were local people, people who would have no business knowing the language of far distant lands.
As the onlookers marveled at what was going on, some wondered if this wasn’t a drunken joke. But no, as one of the men stood, he quickly put a stop to that talk, and began to explain what was going on. Drawing from imagery and Scripture familiar to them all, Peter explained how this was the day the prophet Joel had foretold, how this was the dawning of a new time of God. He went on from there to speak of the Messiah, and to declare that He had come, and had died in that city. The crowd was composed of “devout Jews” and hearing this explained in such direct terms, from Scripture and imagery so familiar to them, opened their hearts to the message. As the message connected with their lives and actions, their hearts were pierced by it. And many people believed. Then the Holy Spirit began to work in their lives.
But this work of the Spirit didn’t stop there. In many more ways, as church growth continued throughout the region, He empowered believers to speak boldly yet personally. Just as Peter spoke to the crowd from their shared heritage, the Spirit led other believers to speak to listener’s backgrounds and life stories, individual situations, and personal beliefs. This, so they might hear with their hearts, and not just their ears. In individual discussion, small group encounters, or settings of large crowds, the Holy Spirit spoke to the listeners in their personal languages. Whether in written word, or in preaching, or in one on one conversation, His leading was deliberate, specific, and effective.
Consider various ways the Spirit led people in different contexts:
As noted above, when Peter preached to the devout Jews at Pentecost, he spoke from Scripture about Christ. But when he spoke to Cornelius, he spoke of the events they both knew about.
When Paul talked to intellectuals on Mars Hill, he spoke with Greek poetry. But when he addressed Jews in the synagogues, he argued from Scripture. And when he wrote to believers he had never met in Rome, he wrote with careful exposition of Jewish/Gentile relationships and fundamental Christian theology.
When Jesus preached to crowds in rural Palestine, He used simple examples from their daily lives. When He talked with the Samaritan woman, He spoke of her life, her beliefs, and from the world at hand, not with austere theological arguments.
When the writer of Hebrews wrote to devout Jewish Christians, he used layered symbolic Jewish theology in a rabbinical style.
Over and over throughout Scripture, the Holy Spirit led believers to share spiritual truths in ways that their listeners could understand. Over and over, evangelists of the New Testament were enabled to present the Gospel in ways that connected with their listeners in their own languages. Not just the languages that they spoke, languages of their ears, but in the languages of their hearts. The listeners heard things they cared about, in ways they could relate to.
Now, it is commonly recognized in secular communication that one must know one’s audience, and craft the message appropriately. So in a sense this insight is nothing new. But when we see how the Spirit enabled people at Pentecost, a significant difference comes to light. In the natural world, we learn of the listener’s perspective by getting to know them, taking surveys, etc. In God’s work we determine what to say by asking Him. In the secular world, the goal is to reach people’s minds. In Kingdom work, the goal is to reach their hearts, and only God knows how to do that.
Paul illustrated this openness in his letter to the Corinthians, where he spoke of doing whatever it took to save people: “I have made myself a slave to all, in order to win more people. … To the Jews I became like a Jew … to those under the law, like one under the law … to those who are outside the law, like one outside the law … to the weak I became weak … I have become all things to all people, so that I may by all means save some.” Paul went to the lost where they were, and became whatever they needed in order to win some. He illustrated that “go” in the Great Commission isn’t limited to physically going, but to going where the lost are, culturally, psychologically, personally, etc. This is even truer today.
Being Spirit-led is particularly important in the post-Christian world, because we have to bypass the mind to reach people’s hearts. Their minds are so full of the stuff they hear about church and “Christianity”, that they have many preconceived ideas without ever having heard the Gospel. When we use surveys and script-driven evangelism, we really are engaging with their minds. But what’s really needed is to reach their hearts, and so we need the Spirit to lead us to proclaim according to their hearts. This may be over-simplified, but the bottom line is that evangelizing the post-Christian world is something for which we need the Spirit. But we know that with the Spirit, all things are possible. We don’t know that it’s possible any other way.
It follows from this that reaching people in the post-Christian world requires as much deliberate Spirit-led conceptualization as needed in foreign missions. It is as if the ends of the earth are at our doorstop. But how does one “go” to people who are right in front of us? The secret is to change context. In other words, to proclaim Truth in ways that do not evoke the preconceived ideas that people have. So the proclamation needs to be non-Christian. In a sense, we need to get out of church, even while staying where we are physically.
The need to look beyond physical barriers has never been greater than today. As it becomes easier and easier to travel, as the internet spreads even in African nomadic villages, as translation becomes more common and English increasingly dominates, the historical barriers of language and distance begin to fade away. Instead, the barriers of culture, perspective, worldview, psychology, politics, law, etc, become paramount. The ends of the earth have come to us, and we must respond with the heart of a missionary wherever we stand. We can no longer assume that those around us share our perspective, but must be open to the Spirit’s leading to discern their viewpoint, and His empowerment to speak in their language. The ends of the earth are increasingly determined by culture, politics, and psychology, instead of distance and language. Never before has there been such need for Spirit-led creativity and diversity in our presentation of spiritual truths. Creativity in ways to get the Gospel into their ears, and so creativity in ways to get the Gospel into their hearts.
So we start with prayer, and we ask God to give us His heart for reaching people, and we ask Him to give us ways of speaking Truth that He knows are needed, and we obey, and leave the results up to Him.