When we first moved to the suburbs of Philadelphia, I began coaching soccer as a way to meet people. I’ll never forget my first coaches’ meeting on a Wednesday night at the local township building. I showed up early and sat in the front row. As the room began to ﬁll up, I introduced myself to the coaches sitting around me.
Ten minutes after our meeting started, a man walked to the front of the room and sat down at the head table. He was obviously one of the coaching coordinators; everyone greeted him as he came in.
As he sat down, something caught my eye.
Is that toner smudged on his forehead?
It is toner on his forehead!
Oh my gosh. That’s hysterical. He’s going to be so embarrassed.
Should I pass him a note? Should I walk up and whisper in his ear?
I knew that if I was in his situation, I would want someone to say something to me, but no one else in the room budged. Finally, just as I was getting ready to let this man know about his embarrassing predicament, another man sat down beside him with toner on his forehead as well!
I’m coaching with a bunch of imbeciles, I thought.
I turned around to see if any of the other coaches had noticed, and saw that most of them had toner on their foreheads as well.
Then it hit me: Oh yeah, it’s Ash Wednesday.
Growing up in central Ohio, I wasn’t exposed to Catholicism. There just weren’t many Catholics in our area. When we moved to Philadelphia, I had to spend a great deal of time learning the lifestyle, attitudes, and beliefs of those who grew up in the Catholic Church. If I was going to reach nonbelievers, the majority of whom in our area are former Catholics, I needed to understand their spiritual backgrounds.
You need to study the people you want to reach. Why? Because in order to be effective, you need to live like the people you feel called to evangelize. The issue has to do with barriers. Think about it. So many barriers already exist between you and the nonbelievers you’d like to reach—how you view the world and everything in it—the last thing you want to do is create more cultural barriers they must cross in order to have a relationship with you.
Call to mind the names of three potential non-Christians you could genuinely befriend. What do they wear? Where do they eat? What TV shows do they watch? How do they talk? What kind of technology do they use?
Now, compare how you live with how they live: Do you wear what they wear? Eat what they eat? Watch the TV shows they watch? Talk like they talk? Use the technology they use?
If you want to reach these people, you need to try to live like them. Missionaries call this “contextualization,” which simply means presenting the gospel in the language and culture of those we’re trying to reach. When missionaries go to a foreign country, they adopt everything about that country’s culture—language, dress, etc. They do that to remove any potential barriers to sharing the gospel. They know the gospel itself can be enough of a barrier; they don’t need to erect any more. You have the same task.
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