By Michael E. Brooks
“But to what shall I liken this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their companions, and saying, We played the flute for you and you did not dance; we mourned to you, and you did not lament” (Matthew 11:16-17).
People don’t always act as we expect them to. This is especially true when we visit distant areas and different cultures. Emotions like enthusiasm, gratitude or welcome may not be expressed in familiar ways, and this may lead us to conclude erroneously that they are not felt. This in turn can lead to misunderstandings and offense.
It is also true that others may have unrealistic expectations of us. There are often stereotypes of Christianity, or of westerners, that a visitor is expected to live up to. I have been to areas where Christians who smoked or used tobacco were immediately dismissed as hypocrites because in that culture such use was considered sinful and unchristian, even by those who were of other religions.
Similar standards may exist in dress codes, speech, and other behavior. Additionally, in many areas Christianity is associated primarily with benevolence and it is assumed that any missionary will bring food, medicine, and money for other needs. If such aid is not given the missionary’s message is discredited.
Even Jesus faced this burden. His description of the generation of Israelites to which he came was basically to those whom no one can please.
John the Baptizer came fasting and they accused him of possessing a demon. Jesus ate and drank normally and was called “a glutton and a winebibber” (i.e. drunkard). Neither fit the standard of prophet and religious leader that the current establishment honored, so both were rejected and belittled.
It is true that the Christian evangelist must make an effort to accommodate appropriate expectations. Paul’s method of operations was, “I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22).
We go to the nonbeliever, meeting him on his ground. It is our obligation and practical necessity to make sure that we can be understood. We request the hearing, therefore we assume the responsibility for effective communication. This does not mean, however, that we compromise the nature of our message or our faith. Cultural accommodation does not involve neglecting essential truth.
Jesus’ reaction to the religious leadership of his day was also prompted by the recognition that they did not intend to be satisfied by him. They were looking for reasons to reject him and the message he brought. Their agenda was to protect the status quo, and no newcomer was welcomed.
We, too, often meet those who are resistant to any change, and who perceive us as a threat to their position. However, rather than simply say, no thank you, we are not interested, they may find it more convenient to seek excuses for rejecting us. Thus they criticize our behavior, or make demands that we cannot meet. They then can claim that it is not their prejudice or unbelief that is at fault, but the Christian’s hypocrisy or sinfulness.
Through all this we face the necessity of continuing to practice and preach truth. We must make every effort to be welcomed and understood without unnecessary offense. But we must also preach Christ, without compromise or apology.
By Michael E. Brooks