Cultural shifts have resulted in the collapse of Christendom, an official or unofficial relationship people have with their country and its civil religion. In America, moral views typically associated with Christianity have been replaced by more progressive views associated with libertarianism on marriage, sexuality, and gender.
In addition to loosening the American moral fabric, the collapse of Christendom has left behind a rubble of theological understanding. As the dust settles, we can no longer assume that people know what words like Christ, sin, faith, and God mean. For many, these words may no longer carry their original biblical meaning. We need to become culturally literate in order to be evangelistically fluent. If we don’t, the gospel gets lost in translation.
In secular culture people may actually hear us saying teacher for Christ, bad deeds for sin, wishful thinking for faith, or moldable deity for God. Today, it is a mistake to assume theological literacy. If we are to move forward, the Church must develop its ability to listen to new questions people are asking and learn how to translate the gospel into words and concepts that speak to the heart.
The Need for Cultural Literacy
Consider the need for cultural literacy in this story. A church planter in my city planted little wire signs in grassy medians around the city that read “RepentAustin.org.” I’ll admit it’s a pretty gutsy and confrontational tactic, but Jesus did call people to “repent and believe.” Yet, as I thought about this evangelistic approach, a major objection came to mind. These signs did not take into account contemporary understandings associated with the word “repent.” They conjure up images of judgmental people, filled with hatred toward “sinners,” who self-righteously speak words of condemnation. Instead of intriguing people, it probably elicited disinterest and, perhaps, unduly promoted a distorted view of the Gospel.
What makes this way of presenting the Gospel distorted? First, it does not call attention to Jesus — it focuses on a person’s need to change before they even get to hear about Jesus and what He has done. Second, there are strong cultural memories associated with the word, especially in the South, that are connected with a return to good, moral living — again, a response that has nothing to do with Jesus and what he has done. Many youths, when they hear the word “repent,” associate it with things like: stop listening to secular music, stop sleeping with your girlfriend, and start going to Church. This kind of repentance does not involve turning away from trusting in yourself to trust the Savior. It is simply a switch in lifestyles, secular to Christian. You can alter your behavior without altering your savior.
People adopt the trappings of faith—the religious habits, attempts at moral living, even a new Christianized culture that entails wearing a purity ring and listening to Christian music. But this cultural repentance is not a true turning to Christ; it is a turning to Christianity, to a religious subculture.
Slowing Down to Understand
To be effective in our new cultural landscape, we will have to slow down long enough to understand what people hear and how they speak in order to communicate the gospel in intelligible ways. This involves listening to what people think in order to communicate meaningfully what God thinks. This doesn’t require a PhD in Bible or theology. It requires love: sacrificing our time, tweaking our crammed schedules, putting away our canned responses, and actually conversing with people.
People don’t just need to hear a thirty-second gospel presentation. They need to understand why the Gospel is worth believing. To do this, we must learn their language and know their stories. We need to become “culturally literate in order to be gospel fluent, communicating the gospel in words and idioms that make sense to the people we talk to.
Jonathan K. Dodson (MDiv; ThM) serves as a pastor of City Life Church in Austin, Texas. He is the author of Gospel-Centered Discipleship, The Unbelievable Gospel, and Raised? He has discipled men and women abroad and at home for almost two decades, taking great delight in communicating the gospel and seeing Christ formed in others. Twitter: @Jonathan_Dodson
Jonathan’s new book is The Unbelievable Gospel: Say Something Worth Believing (resource website here). You can also get his free ebook “Four Reasons Not to Share Your Faith.”