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All Things To All People: Evangelism & Culture

Updated: Jun 6, 2022

Sermon #219 St. James the Less #126 2/7/21

Xavier's Adventures

Francis Xavier lived an extraordinary life, filled with great adventures in far off lands. He was a missionary who lived during the 16th century. I think his story is not only fascinating because of all the places he was able to go, but the lessons he learned along the way. And lucky for us, some of those lessons connect with our reading from 1st Corinthians this morning.

So I want to tell you a little bit about Francis Xavier’s life. He was the pioneer of the Christian missionary movement in the far East when he landed in India in 1542. He had been sent there by the pope to preach to the indigenous population (none of whom were Christian).

During this time in history, church and state were dependent on each other; Xavier had been sent by the pope but was in service to the king of Portugal, one of the great maritime powers of that age.

During his time in India, Xavier had great success in baptizing whole villages, but there was a catch. The Portuguese would only protect the locals if they were baptized.

No one today would say that the locals had a very fair shake in the matter. The church has a part in the larger story of colonialism. Xavier was a man of that day and age, and he and the other missionaries paid little attention to the local customs of the area. He was focused on the Good News that needed to be proclaimed, but he cut and pasted the European model of evangelism and brought it to a land far from the great cities and kingdoms of Europe.

He went around to many of the small fishing villages in the area. “He would ring a handbell to call the villagers together and recite the creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and the Rosary. When the fisher-folk had learned the words and professed their belief in the creed, Xavier would baptize them by the hundreds until his hand dropped from exhaustion” (Shelley 287).

He worked hard for the sake of the gospel, but he did it his way, in part, because it was the only way he knew.

A few years later he learned that method would not work when he journeyed farther east to Japan—his imperial European mindset would not succeed in a land with such ancient customs and traditions. He encountered a grand culture filled with prestige and nobility.

Unlike his approach in India, Xavier “saw that while the gospel must transform the Japanese, it need not discard as worthless everything in Japanese life and culture” (287).

Xavier and the Jesuit missionaries after him learned how to delicately dance between faith and culture as they shared the Good News of Jesus. Christianity spread throughout the island because of this new way of doing evangelism.

By the end of the century, missionaries could count 300,000 converts, hundreds of churches, and two Christian colleges. They even established a new town for Christian converts, they named it Nagasaki—and yes, it is the same one you’re thinking of.

Francis Xavier left quite a legacy when he passed away—one of his successors, Matthew Ricci made sure to learn the local culture before preaching the gospel. When Ricci arrived in China, he learned the language and customs of the people. When preaching to the Chinese people he tried to tell them this faith was not a new thing, but actually, Chinese devotion reached its perfection in the Christian faith. “The Lord of Heaven,” whom the Chinese long revered, was in fact God.

Ricci and the other Jesuits’ approach to evangelism was controversial, and is still debated today. But the spirit in which they did it was right on point. To the best of their ability they wanted to show how Jesus was not only the Savior of the Jews or the West, but that somehow this crucified and raised Nazarene was the Savior of the whole world.

1 Corinthians 9

As Paul said to the Corinthians, a multi-cultural bunch themselves, “An obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel.” He goes on to give his missionary approach—the way he preaches to a diverse community, “To the Jews I became as a Jew…To those under the law I became as one under the law.”

The Message version of the Bible translates our passage like this, “I have voluntarily become a servant to any and all in order to reach a wide range of people: religious, nonreligious, meticulous moralists, loose-living immoralists, the defeated, the demoralized—whoever. I didn’t take on their way of life. I kept my bearings in Christ—but I entered their world and tried to experience things from their point of view. I’ve become just about every sort of servant there is in my attempts to lead those I meet into a God-saved life.”

This passage gives us a model for evangelism in our day and time. Evangelism in our life, just like for Paul and Xavier, is contextual. It is the same gospel—the one message of Jesus—and yet how we proclaim that message must be authentic and real. If it’s not, then it won’t stick, it’ll be like Xavier trying to baptize people who only want the protection of the Portuguese.

Young Adults’ Group

I wrestled with some of these ideas at the parish I served while in seminary. I wanted to create a young adults’ group for the handful of folks in their twenties and thirties who attended the church. We learned early on that a potluck in the Parish Hall or a Sunday school class wasn’t going to work. The way we’ve built church community in the past wasn’t going to fit that demographic—my demographic.

The church building was not viewed as a gathering place, it wasn’t really a welcoming place for many who were even nominally associated with a church, and that’s true for many. For this ministry to work we would have to meet them where they were, and so we of course had our first gathering at…Panera Bread—go where the people are, right?

I remember being so nervous that first night, I got there thirty minutes early to make sure we had enough tables—not knowing how many tables we needed. And then I waited…and waited. And then one familiar face walked through the door, and then another, and another until we had filled every seat I had saved.

After that, we met at our different apartments scattered around the DC area. The conversations at the dinner table were about things we were struggling with: relationship issues, the good and bad things about our jobs, and quite naturally faith and God crept into those conversations until they were at the forefront—the very center of our gathering.

What I learned about young adults is that whether they go to church or not, they want honest conversations—conversations they never had in Sunday school—and they are looking for something more, something bigger, transcendent. Though they may not go to church to get those questions answered, the questions are still there.

What I’ve learned since then is that this is not only a young adult way of viewing faith and the church. This is in fact the norm for many of our friends and family—people who long for something more and try to find the answer outside of the “stuffy” church setting.

We need to hear Paul’s words afresh—"I have become all things to all people.”

That doesn’t mean we need to play pretend and become something we are not, BUT rather that we take a step in the direction of the outsider—we go towards them—rather than stay away or completely ignore them. We are the ones that take the initiative to meet people where they are—to learn their personal context.

But many times I think you and I are paralyzed in what I call the School Lunchroom Syndrome. Just like those days when we’d get our tray at lunch and then look around and wonder where we’d sit—we see all the different open seats and try to find a familiar face. There’s the table with the athletes, another with the cheerleaders, the rebels, the brainiacs, the Key Club—and once we find “our group” we put down our head and go straight to that table.

Paul challenges us to take a step towards something different or uncomfortable—he says we don’t have to re-invent ourselves or become something we are not—but we need to learn what it’s like to be another person from a different context—to hear their values and beliefs.

And we can be confident in taking this scary step into the unknown because of the freedom of the Gospel—this Jesus has bound us together through his redemption—he hasn’t whitewashed our differences—we come with our different cultures and backgrounds and are united in Him.

As Paul writes in Galatians, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female; for all are one in Christ Jesus.”

Paul is like those under the law and those outside the law not because he’s unable to figure out what he is, but because he knows God meets us where we are and from there, he calls us to himself. God meets us in those moments.

Paul feels confident that we can take a step towards the unknown and reach out to the “other” because God has done that for us. At different times in our life, we have been the “other”, the one outside, and God has reached out to us, claimed us as his own, and welcomed into his fold.


Evangelism is deeply contextual and always personal. We must be aware of these things, but not be fearful or hesitant to proclaim the Good News through our life, both in word and deed.

The “obligation to proclaim the gospel” was not just laid on Paul or Francis Xavier, nor priests and pastors. This responsibility is on all of us.

The great news is that evangelism and mission can be done in a far-off land, but it can also be done around your dinner table—or if you don’t have a big enough table Panera Bread has plenty. It can be done in your office, over the phone, or even on Zoom! Over this past year we’ve all been forced to rethink how we engage with people.

But no matter how we do it, it is essential that all of us take up this calling to meet people where they are and point them towards that which is holy and eternal, to point them to Jesus.

5th Sunday after the Epiphany. Year B. 1 Corinthians 9:16-23. Church History in Plain Language (3rd ed.) Bruce Shelley. Photo by David Edelstein on Unsplash.

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