Three Lessons for Cross-Cultural Evangelism
In our church in Dubai, we have been amazed to witness conversions of people from Eritrea and Uzbekistan, Syria and South Africa, Scotland and Spain, Iran and India, the Netherlands and Bolivia, Germany and China, and more. They are from religious and non-religious backgrounds, traditional and progressive, Muslim and Hindu, young and old.
What is the key to unlocking the hearts of these people from such an array of cultural and religious backgrounds?
The answer is, there is no “cross-cultural key.” In our evangelism, we don’t do anything differently here than we would anywhere else. Our evangelistic methods are singularly uncreative. To suggest that some people are easier to convert than others is foreign to the Scriptures. All of us, by nature, are “far off.” And so in our evangelism we must bear witness and pray and await the sovereign move of the Spirit.
There is no “key” into a spiritual morgue.
But this doesn’t mean that cultural diversity is irrelevant to evangelism. Most of the world’s cities are becoming more and more ethnically diverse. With 202 nationalities in its labor market, Dubai is ahead of the curve in this area. The world has descended on Arabia, bringing with it both challenges and opportunities for evangelism.
Here are three lessons we have learned living and ministering in an ultra-multi-cultural environment:
1. Communicate clearly.
First, communicate clearly. Muslims are taught from childhood that God has no Son. Hindus deny there is one transcendent Creator who grounds all existence and morality. Secular humanists think religious truth is relative. So, whomever we’re speaking to, we must define our terms clearly. With Muslims, we unpack what the Bible means about God’s Son: not that the Father and Mary physically produced offspring akin to Zeus and Danae, but that the eternal image of the invisible God, who preexisted the universe, came down himself and took on flesh.
With Hindus, we work to explain a moral universe, one where good and bad are defined by God’s character and his revealed will. There’s no use talking about “sin” (Rom. 3:23) or pointing people to the “Son” (John 3:16), unless and until we have unpacked these freighted concepts. In multi-cultural settings we must, as D. A. Carson has said, “start farther back in our evangelism to provide more of the Bible’s story line for the good news to cohere…so we have to unpack more of the doctrine of God, and thus of the Son, to a generation that knows nothing of the Trinity.”
This is why, when Thabiti Anyabwile publicly dialogued with Muslim imam Shabir Ally in Dubai last spring, his opening statement was a 20-minute survey of Old Testament theology leading up to the life and ministry of Jesus. Unless the listeners grasped the storyline of the Bible, the significance of the atonement would be lost on them.
This is simply clear communication, which is all the more important when we live among people who are biblically illiterate and inoculated against a biblical worldview.
2. Proclaim the Word.
Second, proclaim the Word. James teaches that God “brought us forth by the word of truth” (James 1:18). Wherever we are, the agent of regeneration is biblical revelation, read and proclaimed. This is why, in our evangelism, if the person can read, our goal should be to study the Bible with them, regardless of their culture.
“Friendship evangelism” is increasingly popular in the Middle East and many other places, because of the (mistaken) impression that we cannot or should not directly and clearly communicate what the Christian message is, but rather we should allude and insinuate until the friend shows an openness to hearing more. Friendship evangelism emphasizes that we must earn the right to speak the gospel to another person. Of course, we ought not use people merely as evangelistic projects. But, as one evangelist here told me, there is a danger of too much friendship and too little evangelism. Excessive concern about context and techniques will tend to overshadow the command simply to “preach the Word.”
3. Use the local church.
Third, use the local church. Whatever continent you’re on, the church is a gathering of people who are indwelt by God’s Spirit, and who gather weekly for preaching, singing, prayer, and the ordinances. Paul expected the weekly assembly not only to build up the believers, but also to convict non-believers who attended (1 Cor. 14:25).
Over the years, several people from “restricted access” or “closed” countries have quietly attended our church, or even walked into our building during the week and asked to learn about Jesus. Or they have called the church office, identified their religion, and asked to meet with someone to consider the claims of Christ. We were all too happy to oblige—not to pressure anyone, but to offer them friendship, true and clear explanations of the gospel, and the opportunity to observe the three-dimensional display of the gospel that is a local church.
In many of these cases, these people were born again and joined together with us. They not only heard and understood the gospel, they saw how the power of Christ changes individuals and influences entire communities that have little in common except Christ. The church, then, is the confirming echo of the gospel that is being proclaimed.
FOREIGN TO ALL CULTURES
Increasingly, global cities are home to multi-national churches that worship in English, the lingua franca of our day. These churches reach into countless national and ethnic groups, even through English as a second language. When expatriates return to their ancestral homes, they take the gospel back with them.
It’s true that multiculturalism poses challenges for evangelism. However, regardless of where we’re from, we must remember that the gospel is foreign to all of our cultures. For all our diversity, we are still sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, in need of the one remedy that only Jesus could secure: redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
Churches in multi-ethnic settings must work hard to communicate clearly, with due regard to careful biblical theology. We must be centered on scriptural truth that will slice through all manner of cultural and religious barriers. And we must hold up the church as the display of the gospel to the nations.
 Jesus the Son of God: A Christological Title Often Overlooked, Sometimes Misunderstood, and Currently Disputed (Crossway, 2012), p. 85.