I came across a question recently that we don’t ask nearly often enough: What is the core theme of the gospel? It occured to me that there are, to some extent, multiple correct answers to this. We could say redemption. We could say God’s relationship with humankind. We could say “what’s wrong with the world and God’s solution.” And then it occurred to me that these are all basically the same thing, said in different ways.
All Christians have the same story, but we express it in different ways, emphasizing different aspects of it. This flexibility in ways to tell the story is identified by the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 9:22, when he says “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.” We see this in the book of Acts – Jesus is presented as the ultimate fulfillment of the Jewish Messianic prophecies in chapter 2, and the culmination of special knowledge and wisdom to the Gentiles on Mars Hill in chapter 17.
Now here comes the question – what case are you giving when speaking with your atheist co-worker? Are you quoting Bible verses, and citing Genesis 1-2 as an argument against evolution? On the other hand, are you using evidences from archaeology with your Mormon classmate? The presentation of the gospel should be adjusted depending on who we are speaking to. That’s not duplicitous; it’s good communication.
What is their foundation?
When considering the audience we are speaking to, we must consider where they are, not where we were before we became Christians. This is vitally important. Someone who holds to an Eastern religion may not share our premise that the world is full of evil because to them, evil is an illusion. The Muslim need not be convinced of God’s existence, but believes the Bible has been changed so much that it is unreliable. Too often Christians have simply started with Scripture. That’s great if someone shares your trust in it, but most nonbelievers are not there yet. This is something even the apostles recognized – Paul doesn’t lead with Scripture in the sermon on Mars Hill.
What is their spiritual need?
The former point is one that apologists have been saying for a long time. But even once we recognize what the foundations of their worldview are, that may not be the primary obstacle in their path. It could be that there’s a particular immoral lifestyle they prefer. Or, on the other side of the spectrum, they could be so deep into sin that they don’t believe there’s any saving them. In some of these cases, unfortunately, religious people have treated these sins as many degrees worse than their own (such as with drug addiction and fornication, for example), when scripture supports no such distinction. We may not always know this need, but we must be sensitive to it. One who struggles with chronic depression does not need a “hellfire and brimstone” sermon. She/He needs to know that God forgives as well as punishes.
What is your relationship with them?
The difficulty in knowing someone’s spiritual need is another reason why it’s important to ask many questions before we attempt to speak into their life. To the same people that Paul wrote “What do you want? Shall I come to you with a rod or with love and a spirit of gentleness?” (1 Cor. 4:21), Paul also said “out of great distress and anguish of heart I wrote to you through many tears” (2 Cor. 2:4). Lots of us want to wield the rod without actually shedding the tears.
To put it rather simply, consider the good of the person you are speaking to, not just whether you know you are right. We want to point people to Jesus, not show off our debating skills.