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All things to all people

Former CMS missionary John Bales, now training people to work with Muslims as part of the CMS MENTAC program, is convinced by Paul’s example of the need to be ‘all things to all people’.

Paul writes:

19 Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings. (1 Corinthians 9:19–23)

Becoming ‘all things to all people’

The need to train potential missionaries to divest themselves of power and privilege affects every aspect of the way CMS trains missionaries at St Andrew’s Hall and those in cross-cultural ministry programs such as Mentac (Mentoring Across Cultures).In mission this will mean things like language, culture, expression of the gospel and service of the needy. Above all, it will mean a deliberate decision to become weak and vulnerable.

CMS is committed to equipping Christians, especially potential missionaries, to be all things to all people. I am involved in the CMS Mentac program, providing apprenticeships for people in Australia wishing to learn cross-cultural ministry, especially in Muslim and occasionally Buddhist contexts. One of the advantages of placing people into Mentac apprenticeships in a Muslim area is that it usually puts them well outside their comfort zone. Not knowing the languages around them or the meaning of how people are communicating is great preparation for a life of mission. As well as needing to adapt externally—clothes, food, gestures and the like—we need to adapt in the way we relate to others and how we share our faith.

At a deeper level, and very challenging for most of us, is the realisation that the way we have understood our faith—the way we read the Bible, our discipleship and worship—is massively influenced by our culture. Much that we think is ‘Christian’ is in fact our culturally proscribed way of being Christian.   In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul says “I became like a Jew… like one under the law… like one not having the law…” For Paul, this means consciously and deliberately putting off his Jewish identity in order to identify with others. In Philippians 3:8, he even describes his heritage as “garbage”!

Learning to re-present the gospel

Adapting to people of other cultures means learning to expres the gospel in ways that are relevant to their mindset. If we fail to do this, we are explaining a gospel understood by us, but incomprehensible or confusing to our friend.

To give an example: one important tool we learn together in Mentac is to move from a formal, propositional presentation of the gospel to a more fluid, storytelling and long-term relational explanation of the faith. This is accompanied by allowing our friends to see into our lives over a long period. It is more a journey to Christ than a call for instant decision. The cultures we work in are communal in nature rather than individual. This means that people want to not only understand ‘truth’, but see it worked out in a loving, supportive community.

Another aspect of our training, especially for evangelism to Muslims, is learning how to present the gospel in what missionaries call ‘honour-shame’ terms, rather than ‘guilt-innocence’ terms. Muslims tend to see people as weak and ignorant rather than deeply flawed because of their sinful natures. For them, sin is seen as a mistake rather than a violation of God’s moral demands—and mistakes (as Muslims understand them) can be easily forgiven by God.

Muslims understand the solution to our problems as education into the requirements God has given us (i.e. the law/Shariah). So they don’t see the need for someone to pay the price for their guilt. However shame is deeply embedded in their lives. It affects the whole of humanity from Adam onwards and causes defilement which can only be cleansed by shedding blood. The shame of Adam and Eve in the garden is extended to all people, so we are all defiled before God and are unable to come into his presence without a mediator.

Serving many

As Paul speaks in 1 Corinthians 9 of becoming a slave to everyone in order to win as many as possible, he distinguishes different groups. There are three or four groups mentioned in the passage: (i) Jews, (ii) those under the law (possibly the same as the Jews, or perhaps a strict party among the Jews, or Jewish-Christian legalists), (iii) those not under the law (Gentiles or non-Jews) and (iv) the weak (see 8:7–10 referring to new believers who are not strong in their faith).

In our Mentac training in south-west Sydney, we have to think differently for men and women, educated and uneducated, Arab from Egypt and Arab from Syria or Iraq, Bangladeshi, Iranian, Pakistani or Indonesian. How we share with Islamist-fundamentalists, nominals or traditional Muslims will vary enormously. Some Muslims refuse to read the Bible, thinking it is corrupt, so instead we use passages from the Qur’an to give a prophetic overview leading to Christ. However, some Christian friends find using the Qur’an a complete compromise and some Muslim-background believers also don’t want anything to do with Islamic teaching.

Mission in most places today will be in a multi-cultural context with several different groups or, as in Melbourne and Sydney today, many different groups. Eating food from one group may offend some others, dress codes will be different and learning multiple languages only possible for a few. What is needed is people to commit to each different group, learning their culture and ways to share Christ with them, but also working together and supporting one another.

Keeping the core message

Learning new ways to express the gospel is a great joy. However on the other side is the danger of adapting too much, so that the core message of the gospel is explained away. Paul’s concern about not being under the law and, conversely, being under Christ’s law points to this danger. We must really understand what the gospel is, but we also need the checks of Scripture, the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the wise counsel of God’s people.

Paul adds a couple of caveats to his adaption. In verse 20, he says that he becomes like those under the law but is not himself under the law, and in verse 21, he affirms that he is not free from God’s law but under Christ’s law. This is not so much about the contextualisation of the gospel message (adapting the way we share the gospel) but about moral and community behaviour. When we adapt we need to be clear about such boundaries, both theologically and practically. For us in ministry and training, the issues here are practical: eating only halal food, dressing appropriately (for both men and women), not setting up our meetings with men and women sitting together, and at times having separate meetings according to gender. At times, there is criticism that we are denying our freedom in Christ. But that is precisely what Paul was willing to give up for the gospel.

Becoming a slave means becoming vulnerable—vulnerable to others’ misunderstandings, criticism and ridicule. For many of the Mentac trainees, the early months are very difficult. They come to live in Lakemba, in the midst of many strange languages, sounds, smells, foods and festivals. But more confronting are the lifestyle differences of people who relate to each other and to us in ways we don’t comprehend.

There are also enormous human needs: poverty, refugee status, domestic violence, social maladjustment, and the deep sadness of missing family and community from the home country is the context in which we learn. A slave’s job is to serve others, so ministries such as food pantries, English classes and taking people to Centrelink or the immigration tribunal are all part and parcel of becoming one with those we serve.

For Paul, the great privilege and joy was that as he became all things to all people, he himself shared in the gospel (verse 23) and the blessings of seeing lives transformed by Christ. There is no greater joy than seeing someone from a different background to ourselves come to a vibrant, excited faith in Christ, able to teach us new truths of God we never saw before.


Are you someone who could serve cross-culturally with Muslims or Buddhists in the long term? Prepare for mission by doing an apprenticeship with Mentac!