Dave Furman wrote an article entitled “The Same Gospel” that appeared in the May 2015 issue of Tabletalk. Furman is the senior pastor of a church in the United Arab Emirates. Based on his location and the description in his article, it seems that his is a culturally diverse church. His comments are specifically targeted at the unique challenges of cross-cultural ministry, by which I mean different ethnic cultures and nationalities. However, in light of recent research and efforts by those who claim to have the most effective approaches for reaching those of different generations within the same culture (such as Gen X in the U.S.), the principles he addresses are just as applicable there.
Early in his article Furman writes,
The gospel changes lives. Though there are certainly cultural differences between the West and the East, we must resist the temptation to change the gospel. If we do, and people respond, then we have won people not just to a “variation” of the gospel, but to a false gospel, which is no gospel at all. Only the gospel of God concerning His Son is the good news. We want people to hear God’s truth and not a deceitful version of the message. The truth is that our sin against a holy God deserves death and God’s judgment. It is only through faith in Christ’s sacrifice for sinners that we will be saved.
I have heard and read a number of arguments for “presenting” the gospel in a way that fits within the culture in which it is being presented. I have always been reluctant of these approaches however because (1) in almost every instance “presenting it” is code for the message itself, and (2) if the message itself is changed it is necessarily different than the message the Bible contains. Something cannot be both different and the same; that is simply not possible. Even many relativists would agree that this is an impossibility. So, if changing parts of the Bible message is necessary to make it palatable to someone then we have a problem. Let me put it this way: I do not like pecans. It’s not that I do not care for them, I really do not like them. At all. How ridiculous would it be then for someone to tell me they would fix a pecan pie for me but leave out the pecans? Whatever I ended up with may well be tasty, but it would not be pecan pie. That is exactly what happens when we alter the gospel message in some way in order to “overcome” or “avoid” elements of the gospel message that are unpleasant, undesirable or even offensive.
I have heard of this working various ways. In some instances, the idea of Jesus being God’s Son is inconsistent with the beliefs and traditions of some cultures, so that wording is changed. In some places, the idea of a blood sacrifice or the idea of sin is objectionable, so that is tweaked or removed. The idea that we are fallen sinners is not a popular notion. It does not create warm fuzzies for anyone. The reality that we cannot work our way to heaven or earn forgiveness of our sins is inconsistent with what we teach and believe in almost every other area of our lives. Why not change the message a little bit to make it more appealing? Some megachurch pastors have said they will not talk about sin because it offends people. Imagine that! The Bible says it will be an offense; the gospel message will be a stumbling block. Whether it is refusing to talk about sin, changing the message to “culturally appropriate” or using bells and whistles (read lights, loud music and silly activities) to attract people to church, the reality is simply that such methods are nothing other than false advertisement. Okay, perhaps the lights, loud music and silly games are not exactly false advertisement, but when we use gimmicks to bring people in so that we can try to slip in the truth for a few minutes in between the stuff we really attracted them with, are we not operating under false pretenses?
Vacation Bible School and other activities designed to appeal to children can fall victim to this approach, too. There is nothing wrong with games, crafts, songs and skits in and of themselves. When those things became the primary focus of a VBS, though, the church is doing a disservice both to itself and to the children it is endeavoring to reach. If a church wants to offer a babysitting service or activity time or drama camp, no problem. Do that–and call it what it is. If a church wants to have a Vacation Bible School, though, the emphasis and most important part of the schedule need to deal with the Bible. (I have been a part of many VBS programs over the years, as a participant, a leader and as a parent of participants. Some of these out-of-the-box programs are much better than others in this regard. Answers in Genesis, for example, produces a program that is very “meaty” and ensures, when properly utilized, that children are receiving solid, in-depth instruction in the Bible. Generally speaking, though, I think VBS curriculum is like school curriculum. By that, I mean that the ultimate success of the instruction will depend far more on the teachers than on the materials being used).
Furman later writes, this:
There is no better message that we can share. And so there is no need to change it, distort it, rewrite it, add to it, or subtract from it. If you adjust the gospel, you destroy it. Gospel revision always equals gospel reversal. In a culture that is different from ours and even in dangerous contexts, why would we ever want to risk our lives to proclaim news that has no power unto salvation?
One of the most incredible and powerful evidences of the truth of the gospel message is the transformation that occurred in the lives of the followers of Christ after His resurrection. Where there had been fear, there was boldness. Where there had been cowardice, there was courage. Where there had been doubt, there was certainty. If we are going to go to the time, effort, trouble and expense of sharing a message–whether to children in our own church or to unreached people groups halfway around the world–shouldn’t we at least make sure that we are sharing the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? Why waste the time and effort for anything less?
Finally, not only would it be a foolish waste of time, effort and resources to share message that was less than the truth, it would be unauthorized. Here’s how Furman puts it:
Long ago, before there was television and the Internet, when a military had a big victory the king would send a herald into the town centers of the villages, and they would declare the good news and then run into the next town square proclaiming the victory. The herald had no ability to make the news but only to share what the king had declared. That’s what we are called to do: to take the same gospel as it is and proclaim the good news about what our King Jesus has already done.
May we resist all efforts to alter, abridge, tone down or otherwise manipulate the message that all have sinned, all need a Savior, and God has provided one through His Son–a Son who lived a perfect life, suffered a cruel and undeserved death, was buried, rose again three days later and lives now in heaven with God the Father. Wherever we go, wherever the gospel message may go, may it go in boldness and in truth, unapologetically and unashamedly.