What does it look like for us to be all things to all people? Paul models that for us in 1 Corinthians 9. He says when he was with the Jews, he became like a Jew; when with the Gentiles, he became like a Gentile; when with the weak, he became like the weak (1 Cor. 9:21-22).
What, however, does it look like in practice for us to be all things to all people? I believe it works out differently for each of us because we all run in different circles. Let me, however, give you some general principles to operate under.
(1) We must present the gospel in a way people can understand.
Presenting the gospel in a way people can understand doesn’t mean we water down the gospel. Paul sure didn’t. Even though he knew the cross was a stumbling block to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles, he boldly preached the cross. We must do the same.
Knowing we can’t eliminate the offense of the cross doesn’t mean we can’t present the gospel in a way that makes sense to those we are trying to win to Christ.
In the mid 1800’s Hudson Taylor went to China as a Christian missionary. While he was there he also founded the China Inland Mission.
Taylor argued, from the example of the Apostle Paul, “Let us in everything not sinful become like the Chinese, that by all means we may save some .
In saying that Taylor was taking a different line than most of the missionaries at the time. Instead of expecting the Chinese to adopt western christendom, he adopted Chinese culture. He grew his hair out, ate Chinese food, wore traditional Chinese clothing, and learned their language and stories.
Taylor recognized forcing his culture on the Chinese wouldn’t work, so he became like the Chinese as much as he could without sinning, just like Paul became like the Gentiles as much as he could without sinning. Taylor’s unusual move allowed him to do something different than those who had come before him. He was able to use language, stories, and metaphors that resonated with the Chinese people.
That is what we have to do. We have to work to understand the culture of those we are trying to reach, so that we can present the gospel in an understandable way.
Not only do cultural difference exist abroad, but in the States as well.
City and Country
I experienced this personally when I moved to Decatur, TX. While Decatur is not too far from the Dallas Fort Worth Metroplex, it is still a rural town. I didn’t grow up in the country. I grew up in the city, and I have always lived in the city.
When I moved to Decatur, I had to start working, and I still am working, to understand the culture, so I can present the gospel in an understandable way to those who live here.
Cultural divides, however, don’t just exist between the country and city. There are also cultural differences between generations.
There are certain stories, metaphors, and environments that resonate with the older generation that just doesn’t resonate with the younger. If you are in the older generation and you want to reach those in the younger generation — say you grandkids or even your kids — you have to learn their culture. Vice versa for those who are younger.
Now parents this doesn’t mean that you have to start dressing in skinny jeans and cool graphic tee’s. That is probably taking it a little too far. Just understand where they are coming from.
Church and Unchurched
There is also a cultural divide between the churched and unchurched. I believe those of us who were raised in the church either forget this or don’t know it exists. I say that because we often expect those outside the church to understand our churchy language, stories, and metaphors.
We don’t give second thought to using phrases and terms like:
- Jesus lives in my heart.
- That was a God thing.
- That is what sanctification is for.
- Jesus has justified you.
While there is nothing theologically wrong with those phrases and terms, to those outside the church, they often don’t make any sense. Since they don’t make sense, they don’t get what we are trying to say.
Which means when we are talking with the unchurched we have to use language, stories, and metaphors that resonate with them, as well as we have to define our terms, in order to help them understand the good news of the gospel better.
Again that doesn’t mean we water down the gospel, it just means we speak in a way that makes the most sense to those who haven’t had the opportunity to grow up in the church like most of us.
(2) We must be a living incarnation of gospel values.
Paul was a living incarnation of the gospel. We must be the same. We must incarnate or live as an example of the gospel. People should be able to look at our lives and say,
If I were to become a Christian, that is what my life would look like.
The way we give them that picture is by living out the gospel’s values of grace, mercy, love, justice, compassion, and mission, just to name a few.
Our neighbors should be able to see the gospel’s values worked out in a:
- A stay at home mom as she cares for her children, husband, and house.
- A business man as he deals with his clients, employees, and finances.
- A farmer as he cares for his animals, his workers, and business.
- A teacher as she interacts with the kids, the parents, and the administration.
The examples could go on and on, but I think you get the idea. The gospel should permeate our lives so that we are a living incarnation of gospel values.
It is one thing to preach the gospel, it is another to live it.
Living out the gospel’s values, along with preaching, has to happen. If we don’t, the message we preach will fall on deaf ears.
(3) We must discipline ourselves to live as Christ has called us to live
We all know Tiger Woods is a great golfer. You can’t deny it. The man has won 105 tournaments, 4 Masters, and 4 PGA Championships. He has won 132 billion dollars in total prizes .
While he has real talent, he doesn’t just walk out on the course the day of the tournament and win. He trains almost everyday for 12 hours a day – working out, playing golf, and eating well .
Tiger’s talent takes him a long way, but what makes him a great golfer is his discipline and self-control.
Like Tiger, Paul tells us we must exercise self-control, we must be disciplined, if we want to be all things to all people, while remaining faithful to the gospel.
In chapter 9 of 1 Corinthians he uses an athletic metaphor derived from those who participated in the games held in Corinth — the Isthmian games. He says,
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it.
Then he starts to tell us how we are to run:
Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it, Paul tells us, to receive a perishable wreath, but look what we are striving for – an imperishable wreath; an eternal reward. Because our reward is so great Paul says,
So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. (1 Cor. 9:25-27)
With that Paul gives us the secret to remaining faithful to the life God has called us to live; the secret to being all things to all people is self-discipline, self-control.
Those are needed in order for us to be all things to all people, because we have to have walk a fine line between giving up our rights and adhering to Christ’s law.
As Christians we have rights, but we have to be willing to give those up at times. As Christians we have freedom to live as others do, but we can’t take that too far.
The only way for us to find the sweet spot, so that we can be all things to all people, while remaining faithful to the Law of Christ is to be disciplined, is to exercise self-control.
Question for Reflection
- How has God used you as you have been all things to all people?
Post adapted from my sermon All Things to All People to Win Some, which you can listen to by clicking here.
 James Hudson Taylor’s reflection on 1 Corinthians 9v19-23