The Chevy Nova was a relatively successful American car for many years. Encouraged by U.S. sales, Chevrolet began to market the American Nova throughout the world.
Unfortunately, the Nova did not sell well in Mexico and other Latin American countries. Additional ads were ordered, marketing efforts were stepped up, but sales remained stagnant.
Sales directors were baffled. The car had sold well in the American market; why wasn’t it selling now?
When they discovered the answer, it was rather embarrassing:
In Spanish, Nova means “nogo.”
The business world is full of such stories. For example, when Perdue Farms, Inc., converted its popular slogan “It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken” into Spanish in hopes of expanding its chicken business, the results were less than desirable.
The translation was “It takes a virile man to make a chicken affectionate.”
Not exactly what they had in mind.
What does this have to do with rethinking evangelism?
Evangelism involves effectively communicating the gospel of Jesus Christ with the goal of seeing an individual come to saving faith in Christ. The New Testament model for evangelism is to pursue this communication through contextualization, which simply means that the message of the Christian faith is to be presented in a way that makes sense to the person hearing it.
Think of the evangelistic efforts of Jesus.
When he encountered the woman at the well, he began his conversation with the topic of water.
When he encountered the fisherman Peter, his starting point was fishing.
When the tax collector invited Jesus to his house, the issue of money opened the dialogue.
Jesus clearly developed his presentation of God’s saving message in light of the context and background of his listeners. The apostle Paul shared Christ’s commitment to this approach, writing that he became “all things to all men so that by all possible means [he] might save some” (1 Cor. 9:22).
Have you ever wondered why there are four separate gospels in the New Testament? Yes, it was because of the importance and centrality of the work of Christ. And yes, because the life of Christ was so rich that it could have called for forty accounts, much less four.
But four accounts were also inspired by the Holy Spirit for the most obvious reason of all. The gospel called for multiple approaches by multiple writers, each presenting the message of Christ to a different audience.
Not to be overly simplistic, but Matthew was written for the Jews, Mark for the comic book readers of his day (just the action scenes, please); Luke was the careful historian writing for the non-Jewish skeptics; John wrote for the aesthetic and philosophical (but was arguably the most evangelistic of them all).
The point is simple, but profound. The Bible challenges us to contextualize our message for the sake of evangelistic impact. The message of the gospel is unchanging, but the method of communicating that gospel must change according to the language, culture, and background of the audience.
This is the heart of rethinking evangelism.
It is not rethinking the message, but the method.
It is not rethinking the dictionary, but the vocabulary.
It is not rethinking what we say, but how we say it.
And here is the great reality of our day that must shape our communication: in the West, we now live in a post-Christian context. Or as I’ve written in other places, we have moved from an Acts 2 “God-fearing Jews in Jerusalem” world to an Acts 17 pluralistic milieu.
Those are two different languages. We know the first one. We need to go to school on the second.
George Bernard Shaw said that the “greatest problem of communication is the illusion that it has been accomplished.”
And as the folks at Chevrolet can tell you, that is one illusion you do not want to fall prey to believing.
James Emery White
Adapted from James Emery White, Rethinking the Church (Baker).