“I chew Tootsie Rolls so my spit can be brown.” That’s what a pastor-friend told me. He pastored in upstate NY, where most of the guys chewed tobacco. He wanted to relate to them better, so he needed brown spit. He popped a mini-Tootsie Roll in his mouth, and that made his spit brown. I am not making this up.
Megachurch pastor, Ed Young, starts a recent video with some second-tier swear words. By second-tier, I mean words you can find in the Bible, like damn and hell, plus a few crude words like suck… you get the picture. Once he has your attention, he describes a new breed of pastors that uses cuss words to relate to the audience. Ed then argues AGAINST that practice. He says it isn’t necessary, and that followers of Jesus should purify their language.
So, should pastors chew Tootsie Rolls so they can look like they’re chewing tobacco and spit brown spit? Should we spice up our preaching with a few well-timed helluva’s and pissed-off’s? Is this what Paul meant when he wrote, “I have become all things to all people that I might by all means save some” (1 Cor 9:22)?
As followers of Jesus, we incarnate two values:
We need to get down and dirty with lost people, so we can take their hands and lead them to Christ.
Missionary Hudson Taylor shocked prim English society when he started dressing like the Chinese people he evangelized. He even grew a pony tail and braided it. He rewrote English hymns to Chinese music and used Chinese idiom to preach the gospel.
He became like them to reach them for Jesus.
Hard to argue, right? He got criticized for being worldly. Thank you, people of God. There is a sense in which we have to incarnate Christ’s love into a culture, even if that culture stinks. Think of how stinky earth is compared to heaven, but Heaven’s Missionary came to us in a barn. We must live the context of the people we’re trying to reach.
But does that mean cussing or brown spit? Or–to push it the question farther–in my high school years, a group calling themselves Children of God used pornography for evangelism. Yes indeed. They handed out Jesus-literature with pornographic drawings to get young students’ attention, and believe me, it worked. They called it “flirty-fishing.” I later learned that group was a pretty sick cult.
Just how far should we push this thing called “contextualization”?
Not that far, says one of my all-time favorite preachers, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Lloyd-Jones gave up a medical career for the ministry. He was assigned his first church in an economically depressed, blighted urban area in Wales. High unemployment, blue collar coal miners, and a broken economy didn’t make life easy.
Lloyd-Jones was a white-collar professional–a physician. The men in his community were rough coal miners with the language to match. What’s a young pastor to do?
For Lloyd-Jones, the answer was simple: be your best self in Christ.
I read Ian Murray’s ridiculously long biography (2 fat volumes) three or four times, early in my ministry, and what a relief! Lloyd-Jones argued that people are looking for A WAY OUT OF THE LIFE THEY KNOW. And we who follow Jesus must manifest that WAY OUT, even as we speak our people’s language. It’s not only our similarities to our people that forge connections, ITS OUR DISSIMILARITIES, too. Our people need to want what we have. They need to see that a better life is within reach. They need hope.
That’s the complementary value to #1:
2. People need to see that a different life is within reach, and we need to manifest that life.
When I was in Africa, Dave and Becki Thompson lent me a book by an African native who converted to Christ (I forget its title). The African writes of all kinds of westerners coming to African villages, and getting practically naked so they could be like the tribal people. He always thought that was nuts. The only reason his people were naked, he wrote, was because they didn’t have clothes! They wanted clothes, but didn’t have them, and thought only an idiot would run around the jungle naked by choice.
I love the twin truths of 2 Tim 2:19: “Nevertheless the solid foundation of God stands, having this seal: “The Lord knows those who are His,” and, “Let everyone who names the name of Christ depart from iniquity.””
- The Lord knows those who are his: that’s our security, our comfort, our salvation, our hope, our peace. That’s God’s side of the coin. Grace. Salvation. Freedom. Then there’s the flipside:
- Let everyone who names the name of Christ depart from iniquity. Not in a legalistic sense, but in an evangelistic sense: Jesus lifted me out of a sewer into a clean-smelling atmosphere… and he is ready to lift you too.
Plus, I’m on a low-carb diet and Tootsie Rolls won’t work for me. Dang it.