Making Mucho of Jesus

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Sometimes the least Gospel-centered thing we can do is to talk about being Gospel-centered.

One of the hardest aspects of bringing the gospel to a new community is to separate the culture of the messenger from the gospel message itself. Yet this is one of the most important factors to consider when beginning to disciple new believers. Are we helping them walk with God? Or are we just indoctrinating them into our culture?

The story of David and Goliath provides insight into some of the same dynamics that are involved in launching a new movement (or planting a new church). At the beginning of 1 Samuel 17 King Saul and the Israelites are encamped on a hill opposite from the Philistines. Goliath the giant is sent out to challenge the Israelites to a winner-take-all duel of fighting men. The Hebrews are scared out of their minds and have “lost all hope” (1 Sam 17:10).

Finally David, the lowly shepherd boy present only to deliver lunch to his brothers, steps up and offers to fight the giant. He is taken to the King and, after some convincing, Saul finally agrees to let David fight Goliath. Saul then proceeds to outfit the shepherd boy in the finest armor the Israelite army has to offer. But David refuses it, grabs a sling and 5 stones, and proceeds to kill the giant and rescue a nation.

Popular Christian lingo is Saul’s armor.

Staring a movement from scratch is not all that different from slaying a giant. It feels like God is calling you to do the impossible, plant a gospel movement in a place where it has not flourished before. Soon people begin to trust Christ. They start to grow in their faith and begin to own the growth of the movement for themselves. Suddenly the thought hits, “They need equipping!”

So we turn to the thing that is most familiar to us — lingo that is popular in the Christian community that we’ve come from. We start telling the infant movement that they need to create “gospel-centered missional communities” so they can “make much of Jesus”. We pull out Saul’s armor, totally missing the fact that it doesn’t fit the new movement.

It’s understandable that we would look to where we came from to equip the new movement. After all, it is often the teaching clothed in that lingo that propelled us to follow the vision of launching new movements or churches in the first place. Just like Saul’s armor did for him, it has served us well and grown us in our faith. There’s nothing wrong with it, in and of itself. But just like Saul’s armor, it often doesn’t fit the people we’ve been called to reach.

Professor Charles Kraft shares how often many ministers make this common mistake:

[The communicator] may use a type of language that he understands well but that loses his listeners…. Many preachers, in fact, spend a large part of their ministries preaching to their homiletics professors [from seminary]. They have not learned that they need to use a different style to reach the people in their pews, so they simply continue to speak within the frame of reference that they learned to use in seminary.

God, however, is not like that. He uses the language and thought patterns of those to whom He speaks…He moves into the cultural and linguistic water in which we are immersed in order to make contact with us.

– Charles Kraft (Communicating the Gospel God’s Way, p. 10-11, emphasis added)

“Gospel-centered missional communities making much of Jesus” is forcing new believers to wear Saul’s armor. David needed to fight Goliath. He needed to imitate being a warrior, but he needed the freedom to do it in a way that was true to who God had called him to be. Saul’s armor was good for Saul. It was detrimental to David and his ability to do battle. We do the same things when we ask our converts to “imitate us as we imitate Christ” but then load them down with the Christian lingo we’ve been using to do battle.

How Should We Then Communicate?

If it was wrong for Saul to try to make David fit into his armor, what should he have done? Saul should have listened when David shared his stories of killing wild animals (1 Samuel 17:34). It should have clicked in the King’s mind that the boy knew what he was doing. Saul should have helped David find the best stones possible and encouraged him to use his God given talents to rescue the nation. Instead, Saul turned to the only thing he knew, his armor.

Our job as movement launchers is to learn the language and communication styles of our audiences. We then step towards them and communicate in ways that make sense to them. We listen to their stories and help them lead out of the experiences God has already given them. Few things are more disheartening to me than hearing a Hispanic student as a new believer talk about “the centrality of the gospel” in the books they are reading. Why? Because the phrase is bad? Not at all. But it is Saul’s armor. It doesn’t fit the way the student naturally communicates (does any college student use the word “centrality” in their everyday speech?) . It doesn’t come out of their story and their language. It makes no sense in their context. It is imported from the outside.

Shouldn’t Our Disciples Sound Like Us?

But what about when Paul says, “Imitate me as I imitate Christ.?” Shouldn’t our disciples be learning from us and imitating us? Shouldn’t they sound like the language we use? Yes and no. Our disciples should have lives that have the gospel at the core of all they do. But they should sound like themselves, not like a little Mark Driscoll, Mike Bickle, Bill Johnson, or Joel Osteen. They should still be able to speak to their old friends and make sense.

It is a hard tightrope to walk, helping a movement grow in the principles talked about in the Christian subculture without being co-opted into it. For the dignity of our movements and their effectiveness at spreading the gospel I pray that God will help us to live in this tension well.

Does your language represent the culture of the people you are trying to reach? Or does it better reflect the Christian subculture?

Can you go an entire semester of ministry without mentioning a Christian celebrity or popular Christian lingo? (in your talk, in discipleship appointments, in conversations with students, on twitter or facebook)

When you recommend a particular Bible translation to a student, is it because you know their story and what would fit them best? Or is it because a Christian celebrity told you it was their favorite translation?

photo copyright: NICOLAS LARENTO

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Posted on March 2, 2012

About destinoeric

A white guy who believes Latinos will change the world, Destinoeric served with Destino from 2008-2013. You can read more of his posts here or on twitter.

14 Responses to Making Mucho of Jesus

  1. DJ Jenkins says:

    Hey Eric, I appreciate your thoughts. As a “gospel-centered guy” myself (whatever that exactly means), I found your encouragements to not teach ANY students, whether white or of another culture, to be like Christian Celebrity X is very wise.

    I also couldn’t agree more about contextualizing to the culture of the people we are reaching/discipling. I believe Paul himself modeled and communicated this is what he did in 1 Cor 9:19-23 (which is just one reason I’ve always argued we need more than the KGP to communicate the gospel effectively to a pluralistic society).

    But as a “gospel-centered guy”, I wonder if I could push back a little on something. I’ll use a famous Cru/Destino/Epic example: The Spirit-filled Life. Many staff believe deeply in the Spirit-filled Life, which is a particular theological perspective on the HS. But I don’t think most staff are into teaching and discipling the Spirit-filled Life because the celebrity missionary (a guy named Bill Bright, haha) TOLD them they should be and they thought he was cool. I am convinced most staff say, “The reason we teach the Spirit-filled Life is because we believe it is what the SCRIPTURES teach, and it matters so much to fulfilling our ministry calling.”

    I am not “gospel-centered” because I think it is a cool fad that white celebrity pastors have told me to be, but because I am convinced from the whole of Scripture and more specifically verses like 1 Cor 15:1-3, Luke 24:27, 44-47, & 2 Peter 1:9 (to name a few) teach it. I have no interest in producing people just like me or celebrity pastor X; I want to produce people that love the Scriptures and what the Scriptures teach.

    I realize the way I teach will always be curved as coming from my cultural perspective (something that is a problem for everyone), but that contextualization begs us come to serve the person and their culture, not our own. I couldn’t agree more.

    But is it possible to have a category for doctrine to be ABOVE culture? Like how staff view the Spirit-filled Life, being they would teach it no matter what cultural context they are in, that gospel-centered is in that category?

    Lastly, I don’t think “gospel-centered” is a 1st-level doctrinal issue by any means. I place it on the same level as “God’s sovereignty/man’s responsibility”, baptism, etc. Anywho, that’s enough. Would love to hear your thoughts.

    • destinoeric says:

      DJ,

      Thanks for responding. You bring up some great points. I like how you’ve broadened the conversation to include the “Spirit-filled Life” and not just gospel-centered.

      I don’t think it is possible to have a category of doctrine that is ABOVE culture. Not because there aren’t thing that are universally true about God, of course there are. But any way we know God or talk/think about Him (doctrine) is always culturally known. I think it is impossible to have a-cultural doctrine.

      Here’s an example: when the early church was wrestling through the nature of God and expressing the doctrine of the Trinity, they agreed that the Bible seemed to teach a 3-in-1 or 1-as-3 aspect of God’s nature. They differed, however, in how they expressed it. The Western (Roman) church emphasized God was 1…in three persons. The Eastern (Orthodox) church emphasized the threefold nature of God…united as one. Which was right? Which taught what the Scriptures taught?

      The answer is both. Their respective cultures influenced the way they understood God. Western culture is more individualistic, so we understand God as 1-as-3. Eastern culture is more group oriented, so they focused on the uniting of 3-in-1. If the Eastern church had demanded that the Western church only communicate and understand God in the Eastern way, then all of Christianity would be lacking.

      I think we have to be careful any time we make an appeal to “we believe what the Scriptures teach”, as if our way of understanding them is the only way. It can come across as a power statement, one that excludes other cultural understandings of God. 

      Now, I’m not saying that we need to be wishy-washy in our doctrine or that everything people say about Scripture is true. Not at all. But our culture influences our understanding of God so much that it would be wrong to ignore it.

      So I think it is great to teach the Spirit-filled life or a gospel-centered way of living. There are themes from both of these found in Scripture. I’m saying that we need to do so in a way that listens to the stories and strengths of the people we are reaching. It needs to be in their language, according to how they view life.

      Our students are living out a missional life as part of our destino movement. But they’ve never heard the word “missional”, at least not from us. If we tried to make them sound like white, middle-class evangelicals we would just be putting Saul’s armor on them. In our desire to help we would weigh them down and prevent them from being effective. We’ve actually learned a ton from them as they have the freedom to express the gospel and how they understand God (doctrine) in their own ways.

      Does this make sense?

      • DJ Jenkins says:

        Yeah I think it does Eric. And I think we are agreeing in many ways. We both seem very concerned with making sure we are contextualizing to our audience the best we can. Alisha and I have talked about this a lot just in regards to “mainstream” culture changing (post-modern and all that jazz). But I think I have much room to grow in how cultural backgrounds and viewpoints, especially of minorities effects how we view things. I need to learn a lot from my ethnic minority brothers and sisters, and not just assume my viewpoint. Dialoguing with you guys, others in Epic (like B Virtue), and recently having Tommy Dyo and John Wadely come to our MTL time are helping me see this more and more.

        I guess the place I am left wondering is: Where is the line where we don’t affirm a cultural expression to be “ok” and to be learned from, but we point to Scripture as saying, “Some of this is not ok.”

        An example from white culture: Caucasians tend to have a super-high value on individualism. No one has a right to tell me how to live. I am not truly human unless given the opportunity to make every choice for myself. I think in Christians we see this expressed in lots of ways: “church-hopping”, “you need to meet my needs” mentality, being off-mission, loner Christians, etc.

        To my understanding, I need to bring the Scripture to bear on the fact that God created us for community, puts us under authority for our good, and says the gospel creates servants, not consumers. This doesn’t mean all individualism is bad, but much of it is in conflict with Scripture.

        I realize this is “inside” my own culture, but I see what Scripture says about community, authority, and servanthood as “above” what my white culture tends to say about individualism.

        Perhaps that is where I am confused with the way your are putting things. When do we rebuke? When do we say, “Regardless of the cultural expression, this is wrong in God’s eyes if it never changes”?

        Great dialogue guys!

        • destinoeric says:

          DJ,

          Great questions. I think the biggest thing I emphasize in cross-cultural training is the need for people to back away from the judgment line. We’re so conditioned to judge others based on our own cultural presuppositions that the first thing we need to do is stop judging. We need the space and time to take stock of the inherent assumptions we are living life based on that we’ve never noticed before. Until I start to see how my culture is influencing me then I’ll never be able to truly judge accurately.

          Now of course there is a place for judgment. There is right and wrong, true doctrine and heresy. But I think the Bible’s admonition that we be “sober minded” is what I would emphasize here. And we can’t do that if we don’t realize we have a culture.

          So I would say let’s judge when its time to judge, but since that can often be our first foot forward let’s be intentional to make it later in the process. Maybe the differences we are experiencing with people about how we see God are as a result of cultural differences. Maybe they are socio-economic. Let’s explore those and then as a last result we say, “This is wrong.” I’m not advocating that we move away from judgment, just asking that we move it later in the process.

          Let me know what you think.

    • BVirtue says:

      DJ – your add-on there “Whatever that means” in reference to what it
      means to be Gospel-Centered highlights part of the problem I think.  So many
      people have definitions of what that is that impact how one might go
      about moving into another culture.  I’m in agreement with I think most
      everything you articulate about your general ministry philosophy so I’m
      not speaking in response to you, but weighing in with what I see.  This
      is part of why I like that there are such lively debates today about the
      what the gospel is in full.

      It’s troubled me for a while that
      the phrase “gospel-centered” often carries an authority to it that makes
      dialogue difficult.  Who’s going to take a stand on something and risk
      not being gospel-centered?  It still is a doctrine driven phrase mostly
      in our culture where perhaps we’re giving our own definitions and
      viewpoints more authority than we perhaps we should.  I personally like
      it when ministry language centers around Jesus as a person, because the
      person of Christ can be connected to across cultures with less white
      noise in general.  But what the gospel is is often assumed as if of
      course it’s the right/only way to think about it when I think our
      efforts need to be more explicit to lay out what we mean by that when we
      use it.

      Most of what I struggle with is when people use
      “gospel-centered” to be the “gospel-police” and use that phrase to power
      up on people that have different views.  This causes extra problems in
      crossing cultures for sure.   But I like “gospel-centered” more than
      “cross-centered” which I see out there too :)

      • BVirtue says:

        my bad with the formatting – not sure what happened :)

      • DJ Jenkins says:

        Really good thoughts Brian. Yeah I want to avoid a “gospel-police” mentality too, and I agree that it can be used to say “you’re not as theologically solid as I am because you’re centered on something else.” This is theological snobbery that I don’t think has a place for any believer. This can be done in tons of ways too of course, not just “gospel-centered”.

        And I think you’re right, that it can create difficult dialogue. Who wants to be against the gospel?

        I believe I need to grow in loving & humble expressions of my theological convictions, that don’t prop up my own convictions as superior to others, but yet somehow affirm any truth-position necessarily means others are not true.

        I want to love those not in my theological “camp” if you will. Anywho, good thoughts.

        • BVirtue says:

          agreed – that’s a posture everyone should carry.  In some ways it has me thinking that doctrinal assumptions function a lot like culture in that we don’t know some of them until we find ourselves in a different setting that reveals what’s there.  That’s why (humble) dialogue is huge with people from diverse perspectives.

  2. destinokristy says:

    Love this, Eric.  I was reading yesterday about how the early missionaries to Latin America went into the culture as listeners and asked the question “Who are you?” first so that they could then better adapt the message of the gospel (without watering it down) to Latinos as a people.  When we don’t ask that initial question we just end up acting like imperialists importing our own cultural biases with the gospel and squelching the beauty and reflection of God within the unique culture we are trying to disciple. I think this is an important key to cross-cultural ministry.  We need to be asking the question,” Who are you” before we give our own cultural understanding of the Christian life.  Otherwise we are just TELLING people who they are rather than LEARNING who they are first.  

    I agree with DJ that we can never divorce ourselves from our own culture when engaging in cross-cultural discipleship, but we can seek to be others-focused in the process.  That is what it means to be incarnational, yes? 

    • DJ Jenkins says:

      Couldn’t agree more Kristy. We’ve gotten heat before for being “anti-KGP” and “anti-random ministry mode” because we’ve argued evangelism is first and foremost about the person you are trying to reach, not about training the disciple we are sharing with. We’ve argued the KGP might not always be the best tool to present the gospel to every person, and that random-ministry mode might not be the best way to train and reach students today in light of cultural difficulties, so I couldn’t agree more. 

      BTW, Alisha and I are neither anti-KGP or anti-random mode, rather we are pro-contextualizing and figuring out our audience FIRST before applying methods or communicating the gospel in one way. So I think we are in full agreement here guys.

    • destinoeric says:

      Kristy,

      Great thoughts. I love the example of the missionaries to Latin America. The fact that 90% of the continent is Catholic shows how effective they were at listening to the people they were reaching and not forcing those people to communicate in the ways of 16th Century Spain.

      We need to give people the freedom to understand God differently than how we do, and this starts with the language we use to teach our perspective to them.

  3. Melissa says:

    I jumped on the “the ESV study bible is the best bible out there” bandwagon. I did it because people I respected- like Matt Chandler and John Piper were speaking really highly of it. I didn’t really know why it was considered to be so great, I just knew that I had been told it was great, so I wanted to have some of the greatness too! :)  

    I feel like that happens a lot with the Christian lingo too. We hear people saying these sayings, we start saying them, and then the people around us do too— and most of the time we don’t really even know what the verbage means. 

    I lived with girls from my church during college, and our church was really big on being missional, and using the word missional. When my roommates and I would talk about Jesus and the term missional came up a lot in our conversations. When I graduated from college and began working with Destino and the students I was talking to didn’t use the word “missional” I didn’t understand why. Didn’t everyone know/use that word? 

    no- not everyone used that word

    In my experience it was easy for me to think that a student “wasn’t quite there” and didn’t really understand what it meant to be missional. When actually, they were living missionally and I just didn’t have the eyes to see it, because they weren’t using the same words to talk about it, as I did. 

    • destinoeric says:

      Melissa,

      Wow, such wisdom. Thanks for sharing. I love the line where you say, “actually, they were living missionally and I just didn’t have the eyes to see it, because they weren’t using the same words to talk about it as I did.”  I think this is true for all of us. Instead of focusing on the deeper issues of what it means to walk with the Lord we get distracted by surface things (language, dress, styles of worship/study). It is hard to live deeply spiritual lives that get past these things.

      Thanks also for sharing your experience with the ESV, I appreciate your honesty. In fact, I’ve had the same experience. When I was in college 10 years ago the NASB was the translation en vogue. All the popular guys were saying it was the best translation so I went and bought one and studied out of it. I didn’t want to use one of those lesser Bibles. 

      Then imagine my surprise when suddenly the guys who had been pushing the NASB started singing the praises of the ESV. We started getting them for free at CCC conferences. And suddenly it clicked for me, I’d been down this road before. In another 10 years the celebrities would be on to a new translation and I would have bought their statements hook, line, and sinker. I think this is an example where age helps you see things a little more clearly.

      Thanks again for sharing. As you can tell I thought you had fantastic things to share, thanks for contributing.