“For though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more. And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law; To them that are without law, as without law, (being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ,) that I might gain them that are without law. To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. And this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I might be partaker thereof with you.” (1 Corinthians 9:19–23, KJV)
When I pastored a church in New Hampshire, my wife would attend an annual Pastor’s Encouragement Retreat. On one of those retreats, there was a theme for one of the evening’s banquets. It was a 70s theme and everyone was supposed to dress up like they would have in the 70s. We were in college then and had gotten rid of most all of our 70s garb, but we had a few items left over and did our best to play the part. So, for the evening, we became 70s hippies.
Sometimes, we will find ourselves in a position where we must play a part for a reason. Paul here speaks about an important time of fitting cultural identities, and that for a very specific and important reason. He did it in order to reach more people with the gospel.
In nineteenth century, there was a man named Hudson Taylor, a Christian missionary to China. Taylor adopted what seemed to some as very strange customs. In China, he worked to put aside the appearance of western culture and adapt to the Chinese culture. When he first arrived in China, he continued to dress in western appearance. He preached in 18 tours in and around Shanghai, yet he was poorly received even though with some medical training he had brought medical skills and supplies to the people. However, he decided to adopt to the Chinese culture.
You see, Hudson Taylor came to the realization that his appearance was creating a barrier to his effort. The Chinese were even referring to him as the “Black Devil” because of the black overcoat he wore. So, he began to wear Chinese clothes, he shaved his forehead and had a pigtail as the Chinese men did. After this, he gained an audience and became highly effective in the gospel ministry. To the Chinese, Hudson became Chinese so he might win some for Christ.
Taylor’s approach seemed innovative to many at the time and it is a model for missionary enterprises today. However, it was not the first time this approach was taken. Read Paul’s writing. He became all things to all men that he might reach some with the gospel. He also did such without moral compromise.
Today we live in a culturally diverse world. We need to consider the cultures to which we minister. In America, we have many cultures and sub-cultures. I know of a man who had a significant ministry to the biker (motorcycle) community. Of course, the inroad came because he rode a motorcycle and dressed accordingly. Moreover, while he mingled in this community, he held to the principles of God’s word.
The point of this is that we need to understand the culture and sub-culture in which we are serving the Lord. In many cases, it will require adjustment. We will not be successful if trying to change a person’s cultural heritage. We will be more successful if we can adapt to their culture, without moral compromise, and bring them to faith in Christ. Then we let Christ do what ever changing is needed from the inside out.