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By Rev Charles Seet

Preached at / Published Life BPC 8am service, 2001-03-04

Text: 1 Corinthians 9:19-23

I. The Need for Cross Cultural Missions 

We have been having a series of messages on the theme 'To The Regions Beyond' which is all about missions. Our topic for this morning deals with what is called Cross-Cultural missions, which means, 'Reaching out to a group that is ethnically and culturally different from oneself.' Hence, whenever we attempt to share the gospel with someone who is ethnically and culturally different from us - like a Chinese Christian witnessing to an Indian, this is cross-cultural missions in a very broad sense. 

But in the Christian circles today when a person mentions cross-cultural missions he usually means overcoming much greater barriers than that, barriers that make the proclaiming of the Gospel a much longer and more tedious process than it would take to evangelise one's own countrymen, and sometimes requires even spending a whole lifetime with them to do this. Here, we are talking about situations where one is reaching out to a people who have traditions, concepts, habits and beliefs so alien to the truths of God�s Word, that it becomes a slow and difficult task to bring them to Christ. 

Such groups of people are now known as unreached ethno-linguistic people groups because they have distinct cultures, with their own ethnicity and/or language, quite isolated from civilisation and the rest of the developing world. They usually live in rural areas away from cities and don't have access to mass media. Some of them are tribal groups and some of them are nomadic groups. There are about 2,000 such groups in the world today. None of them have a church planted in their midst yet. 

We can cite some well-known examples of missions to these types of people: David Livingston who went to Africa, William Carey who went to India. Adoniram Judson who went to Burma, William Chalmers Burns and Hudson Taylor who went to China. Many missionaries from the west like these, did wonderfully well in bringing the gospel to the ends of the earth. But unfortunately they sometimes did some things things on the mission field they should not have done, things which have long term consequences that are still being felt today. 

II. The Problems of Cross-Cultural Missions 

One of the mistakes made by many missionaries in the past was that they came into a mission field not only to change the people to the Gospel, but also to convert them to their own culture. They considered their own culture as being superior to any other and sought to convert people not only to Christ but also to their own culture. This is one of the causes of the often-expressed sentiment from some non-Christians today that Christianity is a western religion. Therefore in many non-Western countries today to become a Christian is tantamount to disowning one's own cultural and ethnic identity.

And some missionaries went even further than that. Instead of learning the language of the people, they attempted to change the language of the people. They taught them Spanish, or Latin or English first so that they may understand the Gospel in the missionary's own tongue. This was not a good thing to do, because it imposed a double burden on the people. First they had to overcome a language barrier to get to God's Word. Then they have to overcome an interpretation barrier to study and understand God's Word. It is like requiring all of us to do all our Bible study in our second language instead of our first language. You know how difficult and frustrating this can be.

One of the reasons why this happened, is that many missionaries found it extremely difficult to overcome the cultural shock that they experienced on the field. There is the sense of confusion and disorientation to be faced when one finds oneself immersed in a alien culture. And when they are unable to adapt to the different culture and language of the people, they made the people change and adapt to their own culture and their language. After some time there were local people who not only became Christians but who became culturally identical to the missionaries who brought them to Christ - speaking, thinking, and living like them.

These missionaries have in effect destroyed the culture of the people they converted, and given a false cultural identity to the gospel - one which is their own. Instead of being presented with the pure gospel of Christ which is universal, the unreached were presented with a Gospel that was all wrapped up in a culture that is alien and perhaps, even repulsive to some of them. The questions comes, 'How can we present the Gospel without hindering it with this cultural wrapping?'

III. The Biblical Solution For Cross-Cultural Missions 

Part of the answer to this can be found in our text in 1 Corinthians 9:20-22 'And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the Law, as under the Law, that I might gain them that are under the Law; To them that are without law, as without law (being not without law to God, but under the Law to Christ) that I might gain them that are without the law. To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.'

A. Love whatever is good in their culture 

Look at the last verse again -- that's where our important principle is found: 'I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.' Notice how Paul uses the word 'all' three times in one verse! -- He is definitely driving home a point. The point is: We need to make an effort to understand the cultural background of the people we are reaching out to, and then reach them at their level by using what is familiar to them.

To love the people is to love their culture, and there is much in the culture of the people that we can and must appreciate. Missionaries who had the greatest success in cross-cultural missions were those who learned not only to love the culture of the people they were trying to reach, but who also used whatever is good in the culture to their advantage in communicating the message. 

In reaching out to the Chinese, Hudson Taylor and William Burns chose to dress, eat, and live like the Chinese did, even using chopsticks for eating, though they were heavily criticised by their fellow Englishmen for doing this. They even used certain Chinese characters to communicate the gospel message. [E.g. certain characters like 'righteousness' consists of the character 'lamb' placed over the character for 'me' thus bringing out the Biblical truth that righteousness of Christ, the Lamb of God is imputed to me and that makes me righteous in God's sight.]

The Scriptures provide us with a good example of how this principle can be applied. It is found in Acts 17, where Paul came to the city of Athens in Greece. Let us spend a little more time now to study this passage and draw some lessons from it. The passage begins in V.16: 'Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was stirred within him, when he saw the ciry wholly given to idolatry.' What was it that caused Paul's spirit to be so stirred within him when he was at Athens?

Perhaps it was the sight of the many temples, shrines (more than 200 of them) and altars at every street corner to the Greek Gods. He saw the idols of Zeus, the very immoral chief god, Hera his wife, Ares, the god of war, Athena, goddess of wisdom, Aphrodite, goddess of love, Dionysius, the drunken god and a whole host of other depraved gods. He saw the Greeks in their ignorance and fear coming daily in great numbers to worship the idols, without any hope of eternal life at all. In Greek religion, everyone went to hell, no matter how good or bad he was in this life. There was no place called heaven to look forward to.

Paul probably saw how they worshipped these idols with drunken festivities and orgies, with animals that were sacrificed in honour of these gods. Most of the meat that was sold in the market had already been offered to one of the gods. He saw the people's lives ruled by plenty of superstitious beliefs, not daring to go outside the house on certain days, for fear that something bad would happen to them. The sight of all this may have been the cause of the great stirrings in Paul's heart. His heart melted for the godless ignorance of the people. Even though there was much to be admired in Greek culture, there was also much that was very sinful and depraved that he rejected. This brings out an important lesson for us.

B. Reject whatever is sinful in their culture 

Many today are buying into a dangerous trend in missions called contextualization of the message. This means adapting or modifying the message of Christ to make it culturally relevant to the people we are trying to reach. While we ought to learn to love the culture of the people we are reaching, we must be careful not to tolerate nor accommodate anything sinful in the culture.

If we are not stirred up against the sinful and pagan elements in their culture, we might end up doing what the Roman Catholic Church did in many mission fields - they simply baptised an existing ritual of pagan idolatry, changed the names but retained the forms. E.g. in South America the American Indians used to offer blood sacrifices to the image of a pagan goddess and carve out the heart of the victim and offer it to her. After they became Catholics they did the same thing, but to an image of Mary. And when Jesuit missionaries came to China they also did not speak against the ancestor worship that the Chinese practised but simply adapted it into the doctrine of saying masses for dead loved ones in Purgatory. Let us be careful not to contextualise the Gospel for the sake of making it culturally relevant to the people we are reaching.

The Gospel is a sword that is designed to cut away whatever is sinful and pagan in human culture, and not accommodate it. In our passage of scripture, we see how strenuously Paul wielded this sword Athens. We see this in v.17- 'Therefore disputed he in the synagogue with the Jews, and with the devout persons, and in the market daily with them that met with him.' The word 'disputed' means preaching and and careful reasoning. Paul evidently did not give himself much time to rest. On the Sabbath day he went to the local Synagogue to preach to the Jews. For the rest of the week he went daily to the market place in Athens, to preach at the street corners and meeting places there to everyone who passed by. This brings us to a third lesson that we can learn for cross-cultural missions:

C. Present the Gospel Diligently To Them 

Cross-cultural missions always involved much diligent hard work for success. As Paul preached diligently, people from all walks of life stopped and listened to him preaching. As a result, he earned the unique opportunity to address the highest assembly of Greeks in Athens. This happened when some students of Greek philosophy who heard him became interested because they had never heard this new strange philosophy of life called the Gospel before (vv.18-20). They were so curious about it that they invited him to come and share his views at a meeting of the city council of Athens.

The word 'Areopagus' mentioned in v.19 literally means The Council of Ares or The Council of Mars' Hill. This was the highest council or assembly of about 100 men in Athens who met regularly to decide on matters of importance. Paul found himself with a very unique opportunity to address such a group. In our day, it would be like speaking in Parliament or some other gathering of high-ranking officials.

Now in the next few verses, we come to the main section of our study: Let us read from v.22,23 'Then Paul stood in the midst of Mar's Hill, and said, Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious. For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD.' Paul was saying that in their zeal to serve all the gods, the Athenians had even set up an altar for an unknown god, just in case they might have left one god out. They wanted to be absolutely sure that no god would be offended by being left out. Paul then used this as his point of transition to revealing God to them. He said 'Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, Him declare I unto you.'

And then he proceeded to reveal basic truths about God that we all know, like His omnipotence, His omniscience, His omnipresence, and His universal claims upon all men regardless of nationality or race. Now anyone who has ever taken time to study all the speeches made by Paul in the Bible would notice that this particular speech of Paul is quite different from all the others. We must take careful notice of the following differences: Instead of beginning with the promise of salvation made by God, Paul began with religion in general. Instead of leaning heavily upon Old Testament prophecies, Paul cites the writings of two Greek poets.

The question we ask is, why did Paul use such a different approach to present the truth here? The answer is that different audiences need different approaches of delivering the gospel. This leads us to a fourth lesson we can learn for Cross-cultural missions:

D. Present the Gospel In A Manner That They Are Familiar With 

To communicate the eternal truths about God, we need to choose the right means of delivering it, and this will depend on who we are reaching out to. For instance, when reaching out to children, one useful method of sharing the Gospel is to use The Wordless Book. When I conducted a 4-day seminar on evangelism some time ago, I presented three different methods of evangelism: Using Gospel tracts, using a Marked Bible, and drawing a Bridge of Life diagram with the help of certain memorized verses. Each of these methods have their advantages and disadvantages. Besides them there are other ways of communicating the gospel message, like holding a Gospel rally with a gifted evangelist to speak, or screening a very moving gospel film, or conducting a Bible correspondence course.

I was brought to Christ in my teens as a result of a correspondence course. That method seemed to work well for me, but it might not have worked for you. The point is this: Let us seek to use every legitimate means we can to make Him known.

Now we are going to see how Paul delivered the same truths he had delivered in other cities, but by using a different approach. The audience that Paul had was quite different from the ones he had before. They knew nothing at all about the Scriptures. All that they were familiar with were their Greek poets, and philosophers. They were proud of their philosophers.

By Paul's time Athens had become famous because of Epicurus and Zeno, Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle. In fact, many people regarded Athens as the world's center of learning. In verse 18 two groups of Greek philosophy students were mentioned: The Epicureans and the Stoics. Both believed that the traditional polytheism of the Greeks was not true, but other than this they disagreed on everything else. Epicureans believed that God exists but that He is not concerned at all with what happened to man. To them, the purpose of man's life is pleasure. One Epicurean maxim that has become famous is 'Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.'

The Stoics on the other hand had a pantheistic view of God: Everything is God; all of us, together with all the objects and the world together make up God. The Stoics thought that the purpose of man's life is to be contented by attaining harmony with nature through the use of one's sufficient rational powers. Stoics refused to be excited by pleasure or troubled by pain. All must be accepted stoically. A maxim that is very stoic is 'Ours is not to reason why , ours is just to do and die.'

The point here is that whenever we preach or share the gospel, we must first know our audience well. Endeavour to find out everything you can about a person's background. Take time to learn about the way your audience views life and the world. The audience that Paul had at Mars Hill consisted of intellectuals who belonged to one of these two philosophies, Stoic and Epicurean. And he knew that. His message shows that he had more than a passing knowledge of these philosophies. He had probably studied them in order to find the best means to approach them.

We notice one important thing: Paul did not mention anything at all in his speech, about the God's dealings with Israel -- that would immediately turn off the Greeks, who were not interested in Israel. But his main line of attack was to argue against the idea that an idol could be God (vv.24-25). This truth would be readily received by the Greek philosophers. He dealt with the purpose of life (vv.26-27) which is neither to seek pleasure as the Epicureans believed, nor to seek harmony with nature as the Stoics believed, but to seek God and to enter into a parent-child relationship with Him. He appealed to the sentiments expressed by two well-known Greek poets his audience was familiar with. Although these sentiments were expressed by pagan writers, they had an element of scriptural truth in them, which Paul could now make use of to his advantage.

The first poet he cited was Epimenides who lived in 600 B.C. and had written the words concerning God, 'But thou art not dead; thou livest and abidest forever, For in thee we live and move and have our being' The last line of this can be seen in the first part of v.28, and it effectively expresses the scriptural truth of depending upon God and trusting in Him.

The second poet that Paul cited expresses the fatherhood of God over all men. This poet was Aratus who lived in about 300 B.C. and who had written 'It is with [God] that every one of us in every way has to do, for we are also His offspring.' By using the words of Greek poets to expresses Scriptural truths, Paul was actually showing that these truths are universal. They belong not only to the Jews, but also to the whole world. God's divine revelation is for all men without distinction.

Paul then proceeds to reason with the same perfect logical reasoning used by the Greek philosophers. In v.30 he says that this formerly Unknown God has now brought an end to the times of ignorance concerning Himself. He has now revealed Himself clearly to all men, and all men should therefore stop their idolatrous beliefs and practices, since the truth is now known. No man can now claim that God has not shown us who He is and how He is to be worshipped, using this as an excuse for carrying on in ignorance. Since God has made Himself known, man has no excuse now for not knowing Him.

Now Paul did not stop there. We observe that in v.31 he proclaims the fact that God will judge the world one day 'by that man whom He hath ordained; whereof He hath given assurance unto all men, in that He hath raised him from the dead.' This raising from the dead refers to the resurrection of Jesus Christ 3 days after he had been crucified. This point was actually the whole foundation to Paul's Gospel presentation. It is the resurrection that validates all the claims of Christ, and ends any question concerning His identity as God. But it was also on this point that the Athenian scholars stumbled. The next verse tells us that 'when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked: and others said, We will hear thee again of this matter.' That brought Paul's opportunity to witness at Mars Hill to an abrupt end.

At this point it may be asked, 'Did Paul realize that he had made a mistake by bringing up this matter? Shouldn't he have kept quiet about the resurrection?

And if he knew that the Greeks would scoff at this teaching about Christ's resurrection, would he have spoken differently? I believe that to Paul, the resurrection was so essential to the Gospel, that it could not be left out, even at the risk of losing an excellent opportunity to witness. This brings us to the fifth and final lesson we can learn for cross-cultural missions:

E. Present the Gospel Fully to Them, Trusting God for the Results 

Even though there are different approaches and ways of presenting the Gospel the message must always be the same, full gospel message. Any method of witnessing that has to dilute the Gospel, or that misrepresents the truth, or that deliberately conceals certain truths for the sake of not hurting the sensitivities of the people, must be rejected in cross-cultural missions.

Above all things, cross-cultural missions must be faithful to deliver the Word of God fully, even if that will result in obtaining little or no apparent results. We should just trust God for the results of sound biblical preaching. The apostle Paul did not seem to mind the cold dismissal he received at Mars Hill. But the last two verses of the chapter tells us that after that disappointing event, a few Greeks came to know the Lord Jesus Christ as their personal Saviour. They are mentioned in v.34 as Dionysius the Areopagite, a woman named Damaris and a few others. The scriptures do not mention anything more about Athens, nor about what happened to these new believers after this. But if you were to visit Athens today, you will be pleasantly surprised to find right there on Mars' Hill the remains of a church building, and the name of that church is 'the church of St. Dionysius the Areopagite.'

If Paul had not engaged in cross-cultural preaching in Athens, that church building may not be standing there today. And if he had not presented the gospel fully and diligently, and in a manner that is familiar to the Greeks, that church may also not be there today. That church stands as a testimony to God's working through cross-cultural missions that is carried out faithfully according to the principles laid down in the Scriptures.

It also serves as an encouragement to all who are involved in this oftentimes difficult ministry. As long as our sovereign God is on the throne, there can be no barrier to the gospel - whether lingual, cultural, or ethnic. The success of cross-cultural missions is a foregone conclusion.

Revelation 7:9-12 tells us that John the Apostle in his vision of the end times, beheld, 'a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands and cried with a loud voice, saying, Salvation to our God which sitteth upon the throne and unto the Lamb.'

Therefore, let us not keep the truth only to those of our own culture and our own kind, but keep on crossing cultural barriers to make it known to others, for they need it as much as we did. Hudson Taylor was was asked by one of his first Chinese converts - 'How long have you people in the west known this good news?' And he had to reply, 'We have actually had it for many centuries.' On hearing this the Chinese convert looked painfully at him and said in effect, 'Do you mean to say that you Christians in the west had the truth for hundreds of years, but only now you have come to tell us about it?' May the Lord help us to make Him known to all men.

Vision & Mission


To build a united church family that is committed to making disciples through Salvation, Sanctification and Service, to the glory of God.

Verse for the Week

February 18 & 25 - Fruit of Obedience

If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and abide in his love. John 15:10