A friend in college enjoyed poking fun at me because I was a Christian. For the most part the humor was relatively good-natured. But there was one particular time he came at me with a slightly more serious question.
“So tell me. Why are Christians so judgmental?”
His question threw me. Not because I didn’t know how to answer; I’d been studying a lot of nerdy apologetics at the time. But because he seemed oddly earnest about his question, as if something hovered beneath the surface.
They’re asking the right questions
His posture is not uncommon for a lot of people on the cusp of coming to Jesus. And people should have a lot of questions as it relates to the biggest life-changing decision. All of us have questions core to our existence: Do I matter in this world? Is this all there is? And those questions differ widely based on someone’s generation, ethnicity, culture, or life experience.
On an entirely different plane than the college friend who liked to mess with me, another person close to me was asking, “If I turned out okay, and I’m satisfied with my life, why would I need God?”
Honestly? What a great question.
So this makes me wonder. How is Jesus uniquely good news to my friend who wonders if God Himself is judgmental? Or my friend who doesn’t really sense a need for a being bigger than himself?
If a person’s life experiences and culture expose a specially shaped longing for God, like a puzzle piece, how does God uniquely respond to them? After all, Jesus responded differently to every person recorded in the Gospels.
When the gospel isn’t their good news
When I was younger, someone shared Jesus with me. Their basic message centered around God’s plan, humans’ sin, Jesus’ death paying for our sins, and accepting Jesus’ free gift to pay for that sin. You might call this a “guilt-innocence” model, answering some people’s fundamental questions: “How can God accept me when I am so imperfect?” Or “Who is able to get to heaven?”
But the questions a lot of people ask have changed. For younger generations, questions revolve more around community, identity, image, and emotions. Other cultures might ask questions about shame.
We need to consider: Does the gospel we bring them answer their questions? How can we present the good news for their unique longings—to the point they might genuinely find it beautiful (Romans 10:14-15)?
Not my questions, not my answer
I’d love to say the guilt-innocence message shared changed my life instantaneously, but it didn’t. It made sense. It was logically coherent. It just didn’t feel that relevant.
I grew up in middle-America where culture focused on my individual achievements. But I also grew up in a collectivist Asian-American family. I didn’t sense a personal need to deal with individual guilt or living up to an absolute standard.
My reality included what my community thought of me. The questions in my heart included, Am I going to embarrass anyone today? Or What do these other people think about me?
The gospel I first heard was boiled down by Martin Luther. This makes so much sense in light of his culture during the Protestant Reformation. A church in government forced people to pay indulgences to atone for wrongdoing. Luther felt he would never be able to pay the full amount for each of his sins. In his generation, the church wanted real money to earn salvation. So Luther’s gospel message met a very specific, tangible need and a critical spiritual reality for those seeking God.
But other cultures and situations expose different “holes” in our souls. A Muslim, for example, may want to know what to do about a sin which no washing can clean—or may long for intimacy with God. Someone who lived in the U.S. through 2020 may feel troubled and anxious in a broken world.
Just like we would seek fluency in a person’s language, we must pursue fluency in how we share the gospel.
What’s good news to the person I’m reaching?
The Greek “euangelion” means “good news.” What is good news to the people we are currently reaching? Is it disembodied, never actually meeting their earthly situation? Do we see it as a get-out-of-hell free card?
The truth is, a great deal of people no longer relate to a guilt-innocence gospel message in the way they did 30 years ago. Many I interact with don’t feel guilty over their inability to reach an invisible standard. People are more interested in “speaking their truth,” so there is no standard in their minds. Western culture at large is deconstructing concepts of innocence and purity, finding them hypocritical and fake.
Whether valid or overblown, we must wrestle with how effective traditional evangelical messaging is for this generation. Why would we emphasize innocence when they’re not looking for it?
Same gospel, different language
We’re meant to embrace a wholeness to the gospel. First Corinthians 15:3-9 highlights Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection as the most important essence of the gospel. And yet, so many important implications come from that event. When Paul says, “Christ died for our sins,” this act includes atonement for sins as a part of Jesus’s work, but also adoption into His family. Restoration of our image-bearing. The end of injustice. A new creation in Christ. And so much more.
It’s up to us as Christ-followers to build fluency in how these gospel implications meet the deep needs of all sorts of people. If a person struggles with belonging, their good news may be that Jesus does not forsake us. If a person feels unworthy, they must know that Christ’s death gives them back their dignity. For those unjustly treated, Christ’s resurrection inaugurates victory over all wrongdoing.
We call this ability gospel fluency: the ability to bring the good news of Jesus to engage the broken realities of the people in front of us.
What they’re really asking
As I asked more questions of my friend in college, I came to understand he wasn’t asking me to defend Christian character. He was really asking, “Why did my Christian girlfriend dump me just because I’m not a Christian?” He was looking for empathy and someone to take responsibility.
The person close to me asking “If I turned out okay, why do I need Jesus?” was my Dad. He has been a naturally generous person for all of his adult life. He built his own charity for the elderly in our town and even advocated and raised money to protect persecuted churches in Indonesia as a non-Christian. Every time I went to engage him about the gospel, I started with the truth that being good is not good enough; we’re still sinners. That message always fell on deaf ears and I chalked it up to his “cold, hardened” heart.
As I grew in my understanding of God’s activity, my prayer for my dad changed. I realized God was using my dad’s giving as a way to pursue my dad—not tell him he wasn’t doing enough.
I finally asked my dad, “What would it be like if I turned out okay, but we never talked or had a relationship?” Instead of appealing to his sense of measuring up, God was appealing to my dad’s need for connection with those he loves, just as Jesus connects with us.
The god news: Are you inflexibly flexible?
It is up to us as Christians to be flexible not with the truth of the gospel, but to be flexible to how it speaks to every human condition. The good news of Jesus truly is grander, more powerful, and more mysterious than we could ever imagine—and for not just payment for sin, but every craving of the human heart.
And isn’t that the God we’ve each come to love?
Copyright © 2023 by FamilyLife. All rights reserved.
Tony Wee serves as the Executive Director of Field Expansion for FamilyLife. He received a Masters of Divinity from Talbot School of Theology and has been a missionary with Cru for nearly two decades. He lives in Washington, D.C. with his wife, Steph, and their three kids.