I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. (1 Corinthians 9:22)
In this passage (1 Corinthians 9:19-23), the Apostle Paul defines Christian maturity as flexibility. Following the example of Christ – the infinitely glorious, eternally divine Son of God who wrapped himself in fragile humanity to serve, suffer, and die – Paul shows us what it looks like to give up our rights, preferences, and comforts in order to win people for Christ. As the Apostle to the Gentiles and missionary of the early church, Paul represents a fruitful evangelist who is free, flexible, and focused.
For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. (1 Corinthians 9:19)
Free, Flexible, and Focused
Fruitful evangelism flows from our freedom in Christ. I am not bound by anyone else’s conscience. “I am free from everyone.” Some believers are sensitive about what they eat, what they wear, what they watch, who they hang out with – and each of us must follow the leading of the Holy Spirit. But in Christ, we are all free to follow the Spirit into whatever ministry opportunities he opens up for us. Just as he did for Paul, Jesus invites us to hand him the baggage of our past and our expectations of others, and our Lord says to us, “Now go! Run with the gospel!”
Our freedom in Christ releases us to be flexible in our evangelism: “I have made myself a servant to all.” This means that I place my needs, rights, and preferences under the needs of everyone God has placed around me. “All things to all people,” means I don’t pick and choose; I don’t make distinctions. I adapt and adjust myself to others “to win more of them.”
That is the clear focus of the fruitful evangelist: to make the gospel as attractive as possible to as many people as possible. We ought to be winsome in our outreach. There is a point at which the gospel offends the selfish, stubborn will of a sinner – but the message itself is such wonderfully good news that we should be able to find innumerable ways to make it clear and compelling. I love the line in the Christianity Explored study where Pastor Rico Tice says, “If you hear this message and it doesn’t sound like the best news ever, you can be certain you have not yet understood it.”
Free. Flexible. Focused.
Four Types of People to Reach with the Gospel
With that description of a fruitful evangelist, Paul then describes four types of people for whom he adapted himself in order to win them to Christ:
First, we reach out to people of our own culture.
To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. (1 Corinthians 9:20)
This was Paul’s native people group. He shared their language, customs, and patterns of thinking. Building on this shared experience and mindset, he was able to customize his message for them. We see this when he taught in the synagogue of Pisidian Antioch, first recounting the rich history of Israel, from Abraham to David. “Of this man’s offspring God has brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus, as he promised” (Acts 13:23).
Who are the people of your culture? How can you build on your shared experiences and thinking to make the gospel attractive to them? For me, as a teenager and young adult, it was basketball and soccer. I connected with a handful of guys through our shared interest in sports, and those friendships have continued for over twenty-five years. Because we share a common background, conversations have always been very natural. And because they have watched my faith become more and more rooted in Christ, I have had countless opportunities to share my story with them.
One friend, who was an Atheist in high school and an agnostic in college, became a Christian as a young adult when he started dating a believer who brought him to church and gave him Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. After he put his faith in Christ, he told me that, during his godless years, one of the things that kept him searching was the fact that I was so convinced of the truth of Christianity. Our friendship provided a platform for ongoing conversations that played a part in his journey to Christ.
The second group we reach out to is people who have religion but not Jesus.
To those under the law I became as one under the law to win those under the law. (1 Corinthians 9:20)
This is the majority of Americans today. 71% still claim to be “Christian,” but only 33% self identify as evangelical or born again. (That number is only 16% in metro Chicago, even though 61% attend a Christian church of some kind.) Most people around us know about Jesus, but they don’t know Jesus. They have some religious practices and familiarity with God, but he is not a significant part of their life and is certainly not the center of it.
For people like this it is essential that we emphasize grace. Point them to the truth in Scripture that salvation is a free gift. Help them perceive where their true faith rests. A helpful question that has been used for decades is, “If you died today and God asked, ‘Why should I let you into my heaven?’ what would you say?” A religious person will talk about his good works and church affiliation. We can encourage people, as Pastor Colin Smith did so well in the Heaven sermon series, not to think about what they have done for God but to focus instead on all God has done for them in Christ. That is the only way to prepare for death and judgment.
Third, we make the gospel attractive to people with no religion at all.
To those outside the law I became as one outside the law. (1 Corinthians 9:21)
Often the unchurched and de-churched are more open to spiritual conversation than those who are highly committed to a religion. So the fact that Christians by name only are dropping the pretense and quitting church is actually an opportunity to win them for Jesus! A good approach with this type of person is to slice through the fog of secondary questions and and just talk about Jesus.
Finally, we employ our gospel flexibility within the church to win people with all kinds of fears.
To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. (1 Corinthians 9:22)
Though we are free in Christ, not all believers live in that fullness of that freedom, and they struggle to be flexible and fruitful, largely held back by their fears. They fear angering God, crossing a line, losing their reputation, losing control. We therefore minister the gospel again and again to the fearful, to remind them of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
May we adapt our own needs and preferences in order to win as many people as possible to become fruitful evangelists, that we might make the gospel as attractive as possible to as many people as possible!
I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings. (1 Corinthians 9:23)