Be All Things To All People

In 2014, I worked third-shift at a grocery store. Most of my coworkers did not know Jesus. One coworker loved the television show Breaking Bad. If you don’t know Breaking Bad, it is a television show about how a chemistry teacher becomes a meth synthesizer and dealer. I neither had interest in watching the show nor time to watch it, but it is what my coworker talked about. So, I made the time and watched it. Becoming interested in the show opened up doors for me to participate in conversation with my coworker. That conversation opened doors for me to share the Gospel with him as we worked together. After some time, he learned that I loved to fish. He asked if he could come along. Of course! He asked if I minded whether or not he brought alcohol to the lake. I said I didn’t mind, and he was a little surprised because he knew I was a Christian and thought that all Christians were strict against alcohol use. I got to take the opportunity to explain that Scripture actually does not prohibit drinking. I also got to explain the Christian’s freedom in Christ—Christianity isn’t about works but about God’s grace and mercy for His own glory. Just by identifying with my coworker, I had the opportunity to lovingly correct a misconception about the Christian worldview and explain the Gospel of Christ. Never did I have to condemn my coworker or debate him.

Last year (2019) was our “Year of Evangelism.” We highlighted the importance of sharing Christ’s story. We saw that Scripture calls us to live beyond ourselves—beyond our own preferences, comforts, desires, etc…—for the purpose of honoring God by telling His story. This year (2020) is our “Year of Missions.” Missions is the specific application of evangelism in our current context as we tell others and as we support those who tell others about Christ. This year, I will be saying it in this way—Missions is evangelism in love.

There are many verses in Scripture that address missions directly. As I was thinking about this theme, my attention was persistently drawn to 1 Corinthians 9:22, particularly the second half of the verse. As Paul writes to the church at Corinth, he models what it means to live on mission. So, this will be our theme verse for the year as we really begin striving to live on mission with Christ, abiding in Him and His word in us.

1 Corinthians 9:19-23

For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I may win more. To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law though not being myself under the Law, so that I might win those who are under the Law; to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, so that I might win those who are without law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some. I do all things for the sake of the gospel, so that I may become a fellow partaker of it.

Paul’s heart (v. 19)

For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I may win more.

What does Paul mean when he claims to be free from all men? Paul specifically means that, as a missionary and preacher, he does not preach the Gospel, plant churches, or disciple Christians into maturity under people’s compulsion (v. 16). At Corinth, it means he refuses to accept a paycheck from the Corinthian believers even though God has directed those who preach the Gospel to get their living from the Gospel because he does not want them to hold any sway over him (v. 14-15). Corinth is an immature church. The idea is that the preacher-teacher, missionary, elder, or church-planter is bound to follow Christ and not the preferences of people. He is bound such that he is not compelled by people to do things any certain way. He is compelled, instead, by God’s word. So, if a church wishes to control its pastor by offering a paycheck, it is in sin. If, however, the paycheck is offered giving a pastor freedom to follow Christ, Christ is honored. Paul will not be compelled by people. He is free from all men.

How does he make himself a slave to all?  In what sense does Paul strive to win more? We will see these questions answered as we move through the text.

Paul’s method (v. 20-22a)

To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law though not being myself under the Law, so that I might win those who are under the Law; to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, so that I might win those who are without law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak…

Paul’s method is contextualization. We will describe what this means more as we move through the remaining part of the passage. What I want to point out at this juncture is Paul’s use of language. It is not methodological. Paul isn’t merely doing certain things to appear relevant or attract people. It is a identificatory. He is becoming as a Jew to win Jews. To the weak he becomes weak. To those who are not under God’s Law, he becomes as one who is not under God’s Law. We will explore this idea further.

Paul’s purpose (v. 22b-23)

I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some.

To be all things to all people, in this sense, does not mean we are available at everyone’s beckoning call at all times every day to serve their preferences or support their agendas, morality, or social causes. Being all things to all people is not equal to being taken advantage of. What has Paul already stated clearly? He is free from all people. His statement is one of contextualization. It’s a willingness and conviction we have to identify with people from every walk of life, religious and irreligious.

Similarly, when Paul claims to use all means, it is a statement of identification or contextualization and not method. Paul isn’t saying, here, that he would host a concert or draw people in using the entertaining woo of temple prostitutes. It’s not a methodological statement. He is saying that he will, by means of becoming impoverished seek to reach the impoverished. By means of living according to the religious rules of those under the Law he will reach those under the Law. By means of becoming like a Gentile he will reach the Gentile. The Gospel is the same. It does not change. The Gospel needs no contextualization! We do. Just as Christ condescended to us becoming like us, we become like those we desire to reach culturally. This is how we do missions like Christ. The local church body identifies with the culture outside the church walls. The local church, if she is to obey Christ’s Bible, must not have its own subculture. We must pop the religious bubble. We must tear down these walls!

I want to condense this down to a simple phrase so that we can easily recall this idea: 

Be like who you’re trying to reach.

We don’t have to do everything people do in order to relate. I have a son. My son is a toddler; he recently turned two. I won’t lose my maturity by interesting myself in trains with my son. If I want to spend time with my son, reach my son, and win my son throughout his life, I will be interested in the things he is now. In fact, I will watch what he likes to watch. I will use his language. I will take sips out of his cup when he offers me a drink. To a toddler, I will be a toddler so that I might win my toddler throughout his life. Just as context is key when we are studying Scripture, context is key when we practice missions. We don’t have to live in sin to do that. We don’t have to lose our Christianity to do that. We do, in a very real way, have to deny ourselves—which is what Christ demands of His disciples anyway (cf. Luke 9:23). Here’s the kicker: If the local church is full of people living on mission, living contextually, then the local church will be contextual—it will, in ways that are Biblical, take on characteristics of the culture outside the church walls and redeem those characteristics for the sake of Christ’s Gospel.

I want to consider our community as the year gets started.

Pearce/Sunsites is an amazing place to live. It is different from what it was 10 or 5  years ago. One of the mistakes we make is thinking any community is static. As a community changes, so a church must change. If a church doesn’t change with her community, it doesn’t take long for it to stagnate, decline, and ultimately die out. We are here in the context of our community by God’s providence. Every year, we build a new community profile. As we see in this passage, contextualization is not only practical but Biblical. Members of other communities around the world reading this, simply use this as an example. Build your own community profile. Think about your own cultural context and Christ’s mission therein. Here is a preview of Pearce/Sunsites in 2020:

Cultural elementDescription
Large Retired PopulationPearce/Sunsites was once a planned retirement community and has recently shifted. As a result, there are many retirement-age people in our community but a lack of younger men and women able and willing to provide what is needed.
HomesteadersPeople move to the area surrounding Pearce/Sunsites to intentionally live off-grid (electrical and water). 
Do It YourselfersPeople here learn how to do things and fix things themselves because of the area and culture.
Religiously DiverseThere is diversity in Christian local churches present: Roman Catholic, Fundamental Baptists, Reformed Southern Baptists, and Wesleyans.
Christians here come from different traditions, including Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Pentecostal.

There is a diversity among religious belief outside the Christian worldview. We have Mystics (witches), Rastafarians, Atheists, Mormons, and people who try to mix different worldviews together.
Spiritually AwarePeople here are generally spiritually aware, even if they do not follow Christ. They generally want to be spiritual and connect with God even if they do not value organized religion.

This is why we see the mixing of different worldviews together.
Little Ethnic DiversityThere are mostly Anglos, some Hispanics, and few African Americans.

The hispanic community, though sizable, remains mostly unseen.
Politically DiverseThough we mostly have political (not to be confused with theological) conservatives, there are many political liberals.

There are some who tow the line between conservative and liberal ideals. The number of these people will increase as we continue to see an exodus out of California.

Politics is also what people spend most of their time complaining about.
Young Generations Present But UnengagedKati and I meet plenty of young adults and young families.

These are largely unengaged and find it difficult to find a place to belong if they did not grow up in the area. This is because almost everything about our community, including the way church is done, was built for a retirement aged people. The community and churches have not changed with the population.
Prefers Individualism Over CommunityPeople see themselves as individuals and self sustainers. This plays into the rejection of organized religion. People feel they can find their own spiritualities by their own means and connect with God their own ways.
Homebodies And HobbyistsThough there are some who need to get out of the house, most people would rather spend most of their time at home enveloped in their personal hobbies.
Talking Points Include Food, Horses, Dogs, Guns, Hunting, and CarsThese are some of the things we become interested in because we want to identify with our community and speak light into darkness.
Shops Local and NaturalPeople here generally prefer to support small business and local hobbyists rather than buying elsewhere.

They generally also prefer natural food, healing, and cleansing products.

This is why there is an increased use of marijuana and CBD products. They are seen as natural remedies or supplements.
Public and HomeschoolersWhile most minors attend one of the public schools, there is a decent homeschooling population.

There is no homeschoolers association for the valley.
Generally Averted From Attending ChurchIndependence, self-defined spirituality, and the DIY culture are enough to cause people to be skeptical about the value of attending a local church gathering.
Generally Enjoys of Life’s LuxuriesPeople here generally enjoy wine, beer, or whiskey; enjoy having someone else cook for them; and more.
Indifferent Toward ProgressWhile some older individuals in the community always find something to condemn because it is new and they would rather things be the way the once were, most people here are indifferent to the changes happening because it doesn’t effect them that much.
Prioritizes FamilyPeople generally see family as their most important investment.
Reluctant to Submit to AuthorityThe whole reason people move here is to have more freedom and less regulation. This plays into why participation with organized religion is down.
Will Be Identified With a Vineyard and Winery (maybe)Along with pistachio and chile production, We will grow to be identified more and more with the new vineyard.
Diverse incomeThere are low and high-income households.
Drugs and harmful substancesThere is a high substance abuse problem in the valley.

As you can see, a community profile is more than a demographics chart developed using data from a government census. I have taken the last year to really get to know our community and think about what it will take to reach our community with Christ’s Gospel. The mistake even Bible-preaching local churches make is that they forget to love their communities in this way. They forget that Jesus also contextualized His life and ministry in both the Old and New Testaments. (cf. Genesis 18:4-5; Isaiah 63:9; Matthew 11:19; Luke 2:41-52; 4:15; 19:1-10; John 4:1-42; etc…). Any local church, whether or not it teaches the Bible, can be a social club and watch the world go by while pointing a finger and criticizing or condemning. Only people who truly love Christ and who are ready to deny self can live in the community, love the community where it is, and point people to Jesus—by whose providence any local church is in its community. I know what kind of Christian I want to be and what kind of local church I want to lead. Paul knows, also. To anyone who asks, “Why should we contextualize life and ministry to those who are not in the church or profiting the church?” I ask in reply, “Why should God have condescended to us who are unable to go to Him or give Him anything or contribute to our own salvation?” If God first loved us, then we first love our community.

We remember that the church isn’t about “customer service.” To interpret the text this way is to interpret Paul’s example as methodology. If we are only method-minded, we force ourselves into hypocrisy because we are reaching out to people with the expectation that this method will ultimately benefit us. We don’t want to spiritualize “bait-and-switch” tactics because that is deceitful. Instead, we identify with our community. To the poor we become poor. To the addict we become as addicts. To the democrat we become as democrats. To hobbyists we become hobbyists. To children we become children. This is the formula that God has given for His mission work on this earth. It’s not methodology. It’s identification. While it means doing some of the things people like, it doesn’t mean we sin. Paul will probably eat some bacon with the Gentiles, and he certainly doesn’t make an issue out of eating meat that might have been sacrificed to idols (1 Corinthians 8). He will not, however, confess Caesar as lord and god. Instead of condemning the culture, he uses its redeemable qualities to start a Gospel conversation. That is what we mean, here.

Who does Paul have in mind? His purpose is not to become popular or attract anyone to himself. It is to save some. Who are the “some” Paul refers to? Paul knows that he will not be able to save everyone. His goal is not to try to save all people. He becomes all things to all people as we have described. He doesn’t hold anything back, but his goal is only to save the some. Who are the some? Since we are in 1 Corinthians, let’s consider Paul’s previous words in 1 Corinthians 3:6-7,

I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth. So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth.

Paul sees himself as a participant with Christ. He is planting seed (the Gospel) everywhere by all means. God is the one who causes the growth. God is the causal agent. The some are those whom God will cause to come into salvation by experiencing conversion. Paul understands this.

If God causes people to come into salvation and, ultimately, into the church. What is the purpose of contextualization? How do we benefit from doing this if God causes His chosen people to be saved regardless? Paul answers this question for us.

I do all things for the sake of the gospel, so that I may become a fellow partaker of it.

Paul does this so that he might partake of the Gospel work with Christ. Christ is doing His work. Those who love Christ will desire to partake of Christ’s work. It’s that simple. God doesn’t depend on us. Our community would do just fine without us getting more engaged. God will call His people. We are the ones who may miss out. Let us tear down these walls. Let’s have a great 2020! This is the year of missions.

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