Living and speaking the gospel does not happen in a cultural vacuum but always within a particular cultural and societal context. ‘Society refers to people who are organized into groups—living, speaking, and working together. ‘Culture’ refers to the customary system or patterns of behavior of a particular group of people, and includes language, values, traditions, technologies, arts, etc. People of any particular culture are often unaware of it until they move outside of it— into a different culture, allowing them to see and understand their native culture, their human environment more clearly and objectively. Culture is like water to a fish.
The church is only as effective at witness as it is able to navigate social and cultural contours, communicating the gospel in ways that are meaningful to people in a given society. It is vital therefore that the church carefully examines its social and cultural context, observing the social realm in which it finds itself.
The church will have little or no impact upon people unless it is socially active, reaching into the community, making contact with people. Without penetrating and permeating its sphere of influence, the church will produce little fruit. Media campaigns, religious programs and church architecture, although valuable, are not substitutes for meaningful contact with people who are far from God.
Jesus Christ certainly associated with people, spending time with them. He mingled with the wealthy, mixed with the poor, interacted with scholars, touched the sick and spoke to Samaritans, beggars, and prostitutes. He gained a reputation as “a friend of tax collectors and sinners,” (Matt. 11:19). He went to the places where people were, meeting them on their turf, at their level. His life was characterized by contact with people, despite the seeming drawbacks or negative feedback of such social interaction.
The church is likewise called to be socially active with people in the community, establishing and fostering relationships with them. This requires entering into their lives, into their thoughts and ambitions, their pains and disappointments, their joys and victories. It requires willingness on the part of Christians to know others and be known by them.
Social contact is vitally important because the gospel is communicated most naturally and effectively along established networks of relationships, along ties of family, friends, and fellows. This fact is seen in Jesus’ first disciples:
Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, was one of the two who heard what John had said and who had followed Jesus. The first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him, “We have found the Messiah” (that is, the Christ). And he brought him to Jesus, (John 1:40-42).
People are most receptive to the good news when they know Christians within their social context—Christ-followers with whom they have relational equity. In the case of the Samaritan woman, “many of the Samaritans from that town believed because of the woman’s testimony,” (John 4:39). The Philippian jailer “was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God—he and his whole family,” (Acts 16:34).
Sadly, a majority of Christians are out of touch with sojourners (not-yet-Christians), having little or no influence in their lives within two years after their own conversion to faith. The tendency is to become involved in church-related activities to the exclusion of contact with people far from God— being extracted from previous relationships. In the process, bridges are burned and avenues to share the gospel come to a dead end. Therefore, the challenge is to develop and maintain ongoing relationships with others.
Certainly the challenge is great since our society has increasingly wrapped itself in a social cocoon, a reclusive shell. Technological discoveries such as wide screen televisions, home entertainment systems, internet, and air conditioning have contributed toward “cocooning” and the privatization of individuals.
As well, people are increasingly resistant to the gospel for various reasons. They are apathetic and even hostile to Christianity because of their views of the faith, or a perceived irrelevance or distrust of the church. Despite the challenges, the church must bridge the gap, cross the divide, and engage meaningfully with those who are outside of faith.
The gospel flows most naturally and effectively, but not exclusively, along streams of kinship and friendship. The church’s responsibility to the great commission requires that the gospel also travel across networks of relationships. The evangelical mandate calls for the church to reach beyond its immediate sphere of influence “to the ends of the earth,” (Acts 1:8). It demands reaching out to neighbors, acquaintances, and strangers, extending beyond the influence of existing relationships.
George G. Hunter III, The Contagious Congregation: Frontiers in Evangelism and Church Growth (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1979), 126.
Joseph C. Aldrich, Life-Style Evangelism: Crossing Traditional Boundaries to Reach the Unbelieving World (Portland, OR: Multnomah Press, 1981), 19.