In our American culture we struggle with the clash of cultures and religion and people tend to swing to two sides in their approach to discussions about important topics. One approach is the heart-felt response of concern not to offend or make anyone, including oneself, feel uncomfortable. Or people can swing to the other side and respond emotively, making regretful aggressive, inflammatory, or belittling comments of those with whom we disagree.
Both responses in discussion about important topics lead to problems and a lack communication.
The Christian evangelists (i.e., you who follow Christ) face this challenge when prompted by conviction to proclaim the Gospel. We know we should participate in the Great Commission and “Go…make disciples of all nations…” – but sharing Christ with people is scary. We think, “I don’t know enough” or “What if I do it wrongly” or “What if they get offended” or “What if they ask questions I don’t know how to answer” or… As we think through these arguments in our heads and as the conviction grows in our hearts, our palms get sweaty as the adrenaline begins to flow…and then we engage the conversation, which sometimes starts out in a sheepish, apologizing tone or a worked up and aggressive, militant tone that is not very loving.
Somewhere in-between sheepishness and aggression is a tone of bold love in the proclamation of Christ-crucified and Christ-raised. And the more we seek to understand where the people are coming from who are in disagreement with us about religion, the more they will feel valued and begin to ask questions. It is at this moment we can assist them in taking steps toward Christ, based on what they already believe.
The early Christians had a term for this kind of apologetic interaction, Praeparatio Evangelica, which is Latin for a preparation of the gospel among cultures yet to hear of the message of Christ. In this view, God has already sown in various cultures ideas and themes that would grow to fruition through interpretation in a fully Christian context. In other words it is the job of a Christian evangelist (i.e., you) to know the culture in which we live, along with the worldviews of people we come in contact with to help them see the truths found in culture, in their worldview, in their religion, and then to build upon what they already have that is true by giving them a fuller explanation, which can only be found in Christ and the Scriptures.
How did the early Christians take advantage of Praeparatio Evangelica?
(1) The language of Greek prepared people for the Gospel. Alexander the Great conquered the known world in 331 BC, which was followed by unity of culture and language. By the time of Christ, virtually everyone spoke Greek. The great thinkers wrote in Greek. If you wanted to get a message to the largest number of people you would write in Greek. If you wanted to be heard you would build on ideas that the common person already had heard. The Christians took advantage of this by writing in Greek instead of Latin, Hebrew, or Aramaic. They wanted the Christian message to be heard by as many people as possible and so they used the tool of the written word in the common tongue to get the word out.
Likewise in our world today, English is the common tongue. We Christians in America should be taking advantage of our message by putting it into words for people to read and by trying to distribute the message via the internet through blogs, Facebook, Twitter, etc.
(2) The peace of the Roman Empire and the Roman roads of the first century also made it relatively easy for the Christian message to be spread. Christians took advantage of relative safety and ease of travel. They knew that the roads paved the way to get the written word into new communities and share Christ with those who were interested. And so Christians set out to travel to new communities as missionaries to share Christ with the average person they came in contact with.
Similarly today we not only have roads, but trains, planes, and the World Wide Web. We can get our message out in multiple ways and we should be taking advantage of what is at our disposal.
(3) Greco-Roman religion and philosophy prepared people for the Gospel in the first century. As historian Michael Green points out the early Christians used some of the arguments of Plato, the Stoics, the Epicureans, the Cynics, and the Sophists who had already created a need for a God with more substance than the gods of the Romans. So the early Christians built on what people already questioning (see Acts 17:16-34).
“The Greek Sophists had as great a power over the common people… Their ridicule of the gods must in no small degree have prepared the way for the Christian message. At all events, the Apologists of the second century built upon the foundations they had laid, and often used the weapons of the Greek philosophers in order to denounce Greek gods.” (Michael Green, Evangelism in The Early Church, p. 35).
In today’s context we can build upon the poets and philosophers known by culture. We should be learning about what people are watching on TV, or in the movies, or in politics, or on University campuses, or in science magazines. Elements of the Gospel can be found in almost anything we read or watch (e.g., themes in movies, which deal with redemption. Spiderman 3 is a great example – the black goo is like sin, it changes you and is hard to get rid of. Notice Spiderman went to a church to take it off. So also we need Christ to take sin away and we can meet Him and learn more about Him at church). Know your audience and learn how to take something that interests them and find redemption in that topic of interest and then show them how Christ completes the puzzle.
In closing I need to point out that the above does not mean we compromise anything about the message we preach. We all, if we call ourselves Christian, are called to preach the Gospel to all the world in words and deeds. We are to do this with a zeal from God, led by the Spirit, and with love for humanity. It is my prayer that Grace Church and all Christians reading this blog will develop a passion to see people come to Christ similar to the passion the first century Christians had for making Christ known.
“They [early Christians] looked for nothing less than total surrender to the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ… Had they been willing to practice their Christianity while remaining silent about other deities they could have had a comparatively safe passage. But they insisted that there was no other God than the Father of Jesus Christ. He was a jealous God. His glory he would give to none other. Indeed there were no other gods to be considered.” (Michael Green, p. 21).