Many people approach evangelism and missions as if the world were a pancake. When you pour syrup on a pancake, it spreads out evenly and without having to cross any barriers eventually covers and saturates the entire pancake. When you pour syrup on a waffle, though, it first fills up each individual square one by one before it spreads square by square to cover and saturate the entire waffle.
In this illustration, we can say that the syrup is the gospel message itself. As evangelical Christians, we are committed to the immutability of the fundamentals of the gospel. Salvation by grace through faith on the basis of the forgiveness and reconciliation with our Heavenly Father gained through the substitutionary atonement of Jesus on the cross of Calvary is a non-negotiable. We are not interested in covering, as it were, the waffle of the world with spiritual honey or jam. We are committed to the proclamation of the gospel. Having made that clear, however, we must not forget that in order to extend the syrup of the gospel in such a way so that it fills each and every waffle square of the world, it will take different methods of spreading the gospel and perhaps even different containers that facilitate the use of these different methods
As Americans, and especially as Southern Baptists, we have not always been the best at putting this principle into practice. David Dockery, in his brilliant essay entitled A Call for Renewal, Consensus, and Cooperation: Reflections on the SBC since 1979 in the Building Bridges booklet distributed at the Southern Baptist Convention in San Antonio, observes:
The SBC world in which many of us were nurtured—Bible drills, GAs, RAs, Training Union, WMU, Brotherhood…, not to mention uniform Sunday School lessons, the Baptist hymnal, and similar worship patterns—no longer exists in every SBC church. For almost five decades Southern Baptists followed the same organizational patterns, the same programs, and the same Sunday School lessons. These practices were to Southern Baptists what the Latin Mass was to Roman Catholics. It provided all within the SBC a sense of continuity and security. This programmatic uniformity all hung together around a ubiquitous commitment to missions and evangelism, expressed in giving through the Cooperative Program and support for Lottie Moon and Annie Armstrong. It was absolutely ingenious. Throughout most of the 20th Century, being a Southern Baptist had a cultural and programmatic identity to it unlike anything else. This kind of intactness provided Southern Baptists with a denominational stability unmatched by any other denomination in the country. Martin Marty was not exaggerating when he said that Southern Baptists were the Roman Catholic Church of the South because its identity was so intact, its influence so pervasive, providing an umbrella over the entire culture in almost every dimension of life. We were a very practical people, with heart religion—carried out in rather uniform pragmatic and programmatic expressions.
Beyond this, as American evangelicals in general, we are great at inventing and marketing one-size-fits-all methods: the Four Spiritual Laws, the Jesus Film, Evangelism Explosion, FAITH, the EvangeCube… In and of themselves, none of these examples is a bad thing. Indeed, much gospel syrup has successfully reached many, many waffle squares of the world as a result of these methods. The problem comes whenever we begin to see any particular method as the panacea for the challenge of world evangelism and missions.
It is probably a pretty safe bet to say the majority of evangelical Christians today would not have any serious misgivings with this principle as I have enunciated it so far. The problem in many cases is one of successfully putting into practice what we recognize in our heads to be true. In international, cross-cultural missions, this principle has long been recognized, even if only intuitively.
In recent years, the missional movement in the United States and other Western countries has begun to speak of the need to practice this principle at home as well. If we are going to successfully penetrate the various people-group segments that exist even within our own society, cookie-cutter methods just won’t cut it anymore. It is for this reason that I believe in so-called niche marketing in our evangelistic approach and strategy. As Paul said, we must “become all things to all men so that by all possible means [we] might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22). We must study and seek to understand other people’s cultural presuppositions. We must give diligent effort to not only proclaim the message of the gospel, but also to seriously listen to others in order to adequately answer the questions they are really asking. We must adapt our methods in many cases not only to different people groups and cultural contexts but also to different individuals within those groups. We must be radically incarnational, striving to be Jesus to them in a direct, personal, one-on-one manner.
At the same time, though, as we work towards truly making disciples of those to whom we proclaim the gospel, we must not neglect the crucial truth of the essential unity of the Body of Christ. We must learn to fellowship, and practice the one anothers of the New Testament with believers of different races, ages, social status, and cultural background. If not, we are in the end practicing a defective Christianity that is different from the message that Jesus and his original disciples taught.
I personally believe this truth has an important application in the way we relate to believers in other groups and denominations as well. I don’t have the direct quote—perhaps one of you can help me find it—but from what I understand, Count Zinzendorf taught that God has distributed a certain portion of his truth to each different denomination, and it is only as each one makes its own unique contribution to the fulfillment of the Great Commission that we will really see the full realization of his purpose on the earth.
I am not saying that doctrine does not matter. We should all be as diligent as possible to obey each and every one of Christ’s commands to us. However, we must at the same time remain humble enough to realize that God hasn’t given any one of us a monopoly on understanding and proper interpretation of the truth. I believe this is something of what Paul had in mind when he said, in Ephesians 3:10–11, “His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold (or multi-faceted, many colored) wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
One day, we will stand before the throne of the Lamb of God as “a great multitude that no one [can] count, from every nation, tribe, people and language” (Revelation 7:9). On that day, the syrup of the gospel will have reached each and every waffle square of the world. We will all be there in all our diversity, with all our idiosyncrasies, but yet marvelously one, all together in a beautifully designed tapestry of grace that God will have masterfully woven down through the corridors of time.