There has been a lot of talk about methods in the past few years. Interestingly, some of our fiercest debates have been over methods, not doctrine. (Let us avoid the snare of attacking someone’s doctrine because he has a different opinion on methods.) But methods aside, it is the Spirit that draws people to Jesus Christ. Whether a person teaches a Bible study in a chat room from a coffee shop or preaches on an elaborately decorated stage in a three-piece suit, if God is not in it, the window dressing will not matter much. No matter what one’s methods, be they traditional or innovative, we all should be reminded that our methods are meaningless without the power of the Spirit.
The Corinthians were hung up on methods. They expected Paul to act like the philosophers of the day, to speak with polished words, and to accept remuneration from them as the traveling philosophers did. The Corinthians also wanted Paul to package the gospel in a way that was agreeable with their cultural expectations, consistent with their worldview that was philosophically dominated with the ideas of wisdom (sophia). In fact, they found the gospel itself to be somewhat lacking. The idea of a crucified messiah as the basis of salvation along with the idea of someone proclaiming this message (preaching) as the means to salvation was ridiculous to them. Further, Paul’s simple oratory was insulting. It was antithetical to their worldly wisdom; it was foolishness to them.
In the epistles to the Corinthians Paul used rhetoric—a lot. Not only so, but he reminded the Corinthians of how he was “made all things to all men,” adapting his methods to suit the particular cultures in which he ministered. (See I Corinthians 9:19-22.) Paul participated in a Jewish ritual to appease the Jews in Jerusalem (Acts 21:23–26). Paul’s most extreme adaptation to culture was having Timothy circumcised so he would not be a stumbling block to Jews (Acts 16:3). But Paul’s adaptation to culture was merely pragmatic. He never relied on methods as a foundation for ministry. For Paul, the working of the Spirit was the primary factor in his ministry. After using rhetoric, including sarcasm, idioms, quoting from contemporary writers, and adapting his mannerisms and methods to suit different cultures, Paul reminded the Corinthians, “And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power: That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God” (I Corinthians 2:4-5). (See also I Corinthians 1:18, 24; 4:19-20; and 5:4.)
Pick your methods wisely, and use good ones, but at the end of the day it will be God’s Spirit that makes the real difference. It is God who calls us. It is God who equips us. It is His gospel, His salvation, and we are His ministers. But even with carefully crafted methods, we all must be prepared to be counter-cultural at some point. As accommodating as was Paul, he was stoned, beaten, and ultimately beheaded because of the gospel. The gospel, no matter how it is packaged, is a counter-cultural message.
It is inconceivable that the Almighty would become flesh. It is unexplainable that He would submit to death. It is beyond reason that he would commit the propagation of this message to simple people. The idea that humans can have His salvation freely is against all earthly wisdom and reasoning. Likewise, the idea that Jesus Christ is the exclusive way to salvation is scoffed at even by self-proclaimed Christians.
So no matter what approach one takes to ministry, eventually he will have to stand up against culture. There is no way to make the gospel of Jesus Christ consistent with culture. He went against the grain and His message goes against the grain. So if one thinks he will have less persecution or an easier go at proclaiming the gospel by tweaking a method here and there, he is mistaken. The heart of the message is controversial. “For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God” (I Corinthians 1:17-18).
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