“But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” (1 Peter 3:15)
In 2009, David and I started planting a church in Sapporo, in the north of Japan, with two OMF colleagues, How Chuang and Kaori. God was gracious and gave us a new believer, Naomi*, who was baptised at our Christmas service that year, bringing our little church up to 5 adults. Valentine’s Day in the following February fell on a Sunday. That morning (our worship service was in the afternoon), Naomi called to say that she was bringing a friend, Kei*, because “he really needs Jesus”. We were delighted but now faced a dilemma. David was preaching through the book of Joshua at the time, and that day’s message was to be on the first part of chapter 5 on circumcision, not something we thought would be helpful for someone’s first ever visit to a church.
We called How Chuang who said he had a sermon on friendship and we all agreed that would be better for a newcomer. Kei sat through the service and we were praying for his heart to be touched by what he heard. We always had a time of discussion afterwards, thinking about the Bible passage and asking how to apply it to our lives. Kei was honest. He hated the message! It turned out that he had been betrayed by friends in the past and been bullied. The last thing he wanted was to hear about friendship and how Jesus could be his friend.
One month later was White Day, a Japanese day when guys who got chocolate from girls on Valentine’s Day give back something in return. Naomi called that morning, saying she had invited Kei again. David was due to preach that day from Joshua 7 about the sin of Achan at Ai. We decided not to change the message this time. I prayed through the whole sermon, wondering what Kei would be making of it. It turned out that he loved it! At our sharing time, he said it was good to know that God does not overlook evil but rather judges it. The fact that God cares about right and wrong spoke to Kei who had been on the receiving end of many wrongs in his life, and God used that to start to open his heart. Over the next months, Kei started to study the Bible, believed and was baptised.
I learned an important lesson that day. Although some parts of the Bible may indeed be easier for seekers to understand, God can use any part of his word to speak to people and open their hearts. Rather than focusing on what we want to communicate, it is important to try to understand the needs and questions of the person listening so that we can share in a way that speaks to them. While we do want people to understand the whole gospel eventually, the entry point for each person might be different.
We can see that Jesus did this. When he spoke with Nicodemus in John 3, he talked about the need to be born again of water and the spirit. In the next chapter, however, he spoke to the Samaritan woman about living water, addressing her personal life and spiritual needs. Paul did the same thing. You can compare how he spoke to the Jews in Antioch in Acts 13, the Gentiles in Lystra in Acts 14, and then to the Athenian philosophers and intellectuals at the meeting of the Areopagus in Acts 17 when he referenced their altar “To the Unknown God”. It is not that Paul changed the gospel on each of these occasions, rather that he approached it from a perspective he knew would speak to his audience.
Peter wrote that we should be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks us to give the reason for the hope that we have, and to do this with gentleness and respect. It is important that we listen, both to the person asking and to the Holy Spirit, so that we can answer in a way that is appropriate for that person, rather than answer something that they are not actually asking. It’s been great hearing of all the different events at the Community Week and of the different conversations which were happening. May the Holy Spirit guide each of the ongoing conversations so that people’s hearts may be opened to hear and understand the wonderful truth of the gospel.
By Lorna Ferguson