Speaking Their Heart Language
Share the gospel in a way that makes sense.
by BILL PATTERSON
“WHY DO YOU CHRISTIANS think you have to come over here and convert us?” The question came from a man I had befriended on a plane from New Delhi to Hyderabad in India. This kind man, Hindu in his beliefs, could never envision changing faiths. After sharing his beliefs and seeing my genuine interest, he felt connected with me, at least enough to ask his stunning question.
I share Christ because Jesus commands His followers to do so. (See Matt. 28:18-20.) But I also witness because receiving Christ enables people to have eternal life with the Lord and to have His presence and help in this world.
I answered the man, “If I had a million dollars and believed it would do you good to have a million dollars, I wouldn’t be much of a friend if I didn’t share with you how to receive it, would I?”
The gentleman nodded his head, “That’s right.”
“We Christians believe that having Jesus is worth a lot more than a million dollars in this life and also in the life to come.”
“Oh,” he said, nodding his head vigorously. “I see.” His shoulders lifted, and the lines in his forehead disappeared. He now understood that I shared Christ for his benefit.
Some make witnessing far more complicated than necessary. If you love your husband or your wife, you let others know. If you love Jesus, you let others know. Having a personal relationship with Jesus is not just a matter of believing certain doctrines. Primarily, it is loving the One who loved you so much that He gave His life for you. D.T. Niles said sharing Christ is just “one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.”
James Kennedy, the founder of Evangelism Explosion, explained that his biggest problem in talking with others about the gospel was a big, yellow streak running down his back! I identify with him, do you? However, there are three ways to strengthen our ability to share the gospel and a fourth way to help our listeners receive the message:
1 Pray, asking God to use you to share His Son with others. He will open doors.
2 Live cleanly before the Lord. A surgeon can use most any knife as long as it is sterile.
3 Listen carefully. Hear what others say as well as what they do not say. Listen to their stories. Listen for their hobbies, likes, and dislikes.
4 Show how the gospel applies to the people with whom you share it. Theologians call this contextualization, but it is really just helping people see how the gospel fits into their lives. I’ll focus on this fourth concept in the rest of this article.
Jesus, for instance, spoke to an agricultural society, so He used terms and concepts they understood. He talked about a sower who broadcast his seeds. He talked about a mustard plant. He spoke of a vineyard and told a parable about sheep. (See Mark 4:1-20; Mark 4:30-32; Matt. 21:33-46; Luke 15:3-7.)
To the people of Jesus’ day who were poor, He spoke of the joy of finding one lost coin. He urged fishermen to fish for men. He told of being the Light of the world, the Vine, and the Bread of Life. To the woman at the well, Jesus offered the gift of Living Water. (See Luke 15:8-10; Matt. 4:18-19; John 8:12; John 15:1-8; John 6:22-59; John 4:1-26.)
The early followers of Jesus understood the importance of speaking the language of the people with whom they interacted. By “speaking the language” I mean they spoke to the hearts of people — where the people worked and lived.
The apostle Paul wrote, “I have become all things to all people, so that I may by every possible means save some” (1 Cor. 9:22). When with Jewish people, Paul shared from their common background of Scripture and tradition. With others, he started from where they were.
Consider Paul’s experience in Athens as recorded in Acts 17:15-34.
When Paul entered Athens, he went first to the synagogue and began to share from the Scriptures. The Epicurean and Stoic philosophers heard Paul and took him to Mars Hill, a small, rock outcropping near the Parthenon where the leaders met. This Athenian court no longer held great power but still hosted gatherings where the intelligentsia debated philosophical and religious ideas. Paul started his speech by complimenting the people for being religious. He mentioned statues to many gods in their city but centered on one holding an inscription: “‘To an Unknown God’” (Acts 17:23).
All the philosophers knew of this statue. Paul used it to his advantage to share about the living Lord Jesus. While speaking of Jesus, Paul quoted the third century BC poet Aratus, a person obviously known to the academics with whom he spoke. (See Acts 17:28.)
Although Paul was well educated, he seldom quoted ancient poets because to do so would alienate the common people, not endear them to his message. Paul simply wanted to share the gospel in a way that made sense to the hearers.
Sports dominated the ancient world as it does ours. So Paul wrote of running the race with endurance, fighting the good fight and finishing the race, physical training profiting little but spiritual training profiting much, and looking toward the goal and having a prize laid up for him at the end of his race. (See Heb. 12:1; 2 Tim. 4:7; 1 Tim. 4:8; Phil. 3:14.)
Paul told the essentials of the gospel: Jesus was born of a virgin, lived a sinless life, died on the cross to take our place, was buried, and rose again on the third day. He ascended to heaven after appearing to hundreds of His followers and will come again one day to receive His own. While believing and sharing these gospel basics, Paul tailored his message to enable his hearers to receive the gospel. So can we.
For instance, to farmers you and I can plant a seed of the gospel message. To salesmen we can make the pitch for the greatest gift ever. To homemakers we can talk about how to have the greatest home possible. To those with addictions, we can point to the One who can heal and set free. To teachers we can share the message of the greatest Teacher of all.
After getting to know the Hindu businessman, I asked about his religion. He easily shared about his beliefs and then asked me about mine. After sharing about the Lord, I asked if he would like to receive Christ. He shook his head and said he would not. I asked, “Can you conceive of a time you might receive Christ?” Again, he shook his head.
I asked, “What if you attended a Christian funeral and the deceased rose from the casket, alive?”
He answered, “Of course, of course; then I would become a Christian.”
I shared with him politely, “Sir, we Christians gather every Sunday to worship a living Savior who rose from the dead.”
BILL PATTERSON recently retired from service as an associational missionary in Kentucky. Bill also served as a pastor and as an international missionary. He and his wife, Sandy, love spending time with their nine grandchildren and introducing people to the Holy Land. They live in Fairhope, Alabama.