Navigating culture as followers of Jesus Christ is not something many of us find easy. Evangelizing culture is something we often, in practice, treat as nearly impossible. Sometimes, it’s not even a lack of faith that inhibits our evangelism, but our inability of knowing where to start.
While there is no single cut and dry method, one principle that I’ve found helpful is known as “subversive fulfillment.”1 We all know that the Gospel message is going to be offensive, I mean, Jesus literally said that this world will hate his followers (John 15:8). Every culture is going to have different “sticking points” where aspects of Christ’s message are challenged more within that specific context. Daniel Strange points out that we can see this is exactly the case within the Corinthian context. While discussing the “foolishness of the Cross,” Paul talks about two unique cultures that each have their own difficulties with the message of the Cross. Indeed, “Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom” (I Cor. 1:22; emphasis added).2
Clearly, there were Jews who did not believe that the Gospel satisfied their criteria of signs and power; nothing Jesus wasn’t familiar with (see Matt. 12:39). Also, it is clear that the Gospel was not up to the Greek’s philosophical demands for belief. It is here that the Christian message of “Christ crucified” needs to confront these specific stumbling blocks for belief. Not by changing its message but by challenging theirs. This is the first step of subverting the paradigm of a certain culture in relation to its reasons for unbelief. But note the very important point that each culture, Jewish and Greek, has its own specific obstacles. As Strange points out, “if in our evangelism it doesn’t matter who the audience is—if cultural context is totally irrelevant—then why does Paul distinguish between them?”3
And yet, the Gospel is not simply meant to confront, it is also meant to confirm the deep longings of every human heart, regardless of their culture. As Tim Keller puts it,
[The Gospel offers] what all human hearts rightly need—a meaning that suffering can’t take away; a satisfaction not based on circumstances; a freedom that doesn’t destroy love and community; an identity that doesn’t elude you, crush you, or lead you to exclude others; a basis for justice that doesn’t turn you into a new oppressor; a relief from shame and guilt without resorting to relativism; and a hope that can enable you to face anything with poise, even death.4
Those longings are going to manifest in unique (as well as perverted or twisted) ways, and often, as was the case in Corinth, the very fulfillment of the obstacle of belief, whether its power, wisdom or something else, is in fact found only in Christ. After stating that Jews will not believe because of a lack of signs or power and that the Greeks will not believe because of a lack of wisdom, Paul then states that both of those things are truly and fully found in “Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” Although they did not come in the ways that were expected, nonetheless the Gospel “resonates deeply” with each cultural background, offering true satisfaction despite the need for readjustment and repentance. No matter the culture there will always be both confrontation and connection when it comes to Jesus Christ!4
This is very similar to what Paul does in Acts 17 where he quotes unbelieving poets in a positive light and complements the religious sense present at Athens. He connects with them. Yet, he also confronts them with the true God, the true religion. He neither flippantly dismisses their own culture and beliefs, nor universally affirms them. Paul’s evangelistic message is static and solid, but his evangelistic method is fluid and flexible (cf. I Cor. 9:22). Again as Keller states it,
In each setting Paul varies not only his vocabulary and vocal style but also how he expresses emotion and uses reason, how he deploys illustrations and figures of speech, and, most interesting, how he argues. He reasons and seeks to convince his hearers rather than to merely contradict them.5
When engaging with culture for evangelistic purposes Christians need to likewise reflect this subversive fulfillment approach. Where can we affirm what is believed? What must we confront? How can we connect the two? How can we show how what is really desired can only truly be found in Christ? Where should our methods differ from a pervious context?
None of this is easy, but it is certainly Biblical. A central part of loving our neighbor is listening to them, and genuinely seeking to understand how best to communicate with them. And yet, if we are truly loving our neighbor as ourselves, we should also be looking to show them the only place where true fulfillment is found, Jesus Christ.
- This term is taken from: Daniel Strange, Plugged In: Connecting your faith with what you watch, read, and play, (UK: The Good Book Company, 2019), 102
- Ibid. 99
- Ibid. 100
- Ibid. 9
- Timothy Keller, Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism (New York, New York: Viking, 2015), 100