hile serving as a missionary, I met a young woman who became a close friend. We studied the Bible together, and she accepted the inspiration of Scripture and the death of Jesus for the forgiveness of her sins. However, she couldn’t accept Christ’s divinity. Ultimately, she walked away from our Bible studies and our friendship.
In the aftermath, I asked myself repeatedly, What more could I have done?
Mission work is “the mother of theology,” according to theologian Martin Kähler.1 That is, grappling with diverse belief systems in the missionary endeavor provides an impetus for deeper theological discoveries. The missional urge drives us to Scripture, enriching and magnifying the ancient truths of God’s Word as we try to explain them to others.
Good theology and good practice intersect at missional optimization. Such optimization doesn’t happen in the isolated ivory towers of academia. It’s frontline action born out of the spiritual hand-to-hand combat for a soul. It’s the sorrowful cry,
“What could I have done better?” My experience with this young woman led me to a deep interest in Trinitarian theology and inspired me to write my doctoral dissertation on the missional implications of this topic.
Maybe you’ve interacted with Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, or post-Christians in your sphere of influence. Maybe you’ve been discouraged because the apologetics you learned in Sabbath School don’t seem to have any impact or, perhaps, even seem to raise prejudice. Don’t let this discourage you! Mission requires constant optimization as we find better theological answers and practical approaches for each situation.
But why do we need missional optimization? Why doesn’t it work for us to explain the truth in the same way to everyone?
Presenting truth winsomely
Non-Christians—particularly those living in the 10/40 Window—often don’t know who Jesus is. We can assume they don’t understand the meaning of terms like gospel, salvation, or remnant. And many of the symbols that are so rich in meaning for us are downright weird for them! Imagine hearing about a group of people who worship a dead man, sing about His blood, and have an odd ritual where they give their souls to this dead man (who isn’t really dead) by having a public dip in a bathtub!
The terminology we use can cause those we are trying to reach to misunderstand us, but we can also cause prejudice through the order and presentation of our topics. For example, Bible study guides developed in the Christian West—largely developed by Christians for Christians—begin with common ground truths before bridging into the testing truths. We usually save the testing truths for last because we know that certain teachings cut across the grain of cherished beliefs, and we must be careful about how we present them. These Bible study guides have a predictable order. Often, the first topics will include the validity of Scripture, salvation through faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection, and the character and love of the triune God.
While these topics build rapport with fellow Christians, imagine what would happen if we followed this sequence with a Muslim friend. In just three studies, we would have delivered the most difficult testing truths for Islam. Muslims believe that the Bible is corrupted, Jesus didn’t die, and God is not triune—the three most significant barriers to Christianity presented first!
Optimizing our witness to non-Christians requires adjusting terms, explanations, and the sequence of topics. We were counseled long ago, “Do not at the outset press before the people the most objectionable features of our faith, lest you close the ears of those to whom these things come as a new revelation.”2 We must craft our presentations to make sense to them, not to us.
Answering the questions they are asking
Another important way to optimize our presentation for non-Christians is to answer the questions they are asking, not the questions we think would make sense. For example, we believe it’s important to talk about the fact that hell is not forever. But Buddhists and Hindus aren’t asking about hell; they’re wondering how they can be reincarnated in a higher sphere. Where are our Bible studies that deal with reincarnation in a sensitive way?
We also think it’s important to talk about the manner and timing of Jesus’ return. We spend time debunking myths about the Rapture—an exclusively evangelical Christian concern. But Muslims— who do believe Jesus is coming back—believe He is coming as a prophet who will kill all the pigs, break all the crosses, and make all Christians become Muslim. We need Bible studies that talk about the meaning of Christ’s coming in a way that answers Islamic objections, not Protestant ones.
Regarding sharing the truth with those whose beliefs greatly differ from ours, the injunction given by Ellen White in 1895 is even more applicable today: “The people of every country have their own peculiar, distinctive characteristics, and it is necessary that men should be wise in order that they may know how to adapt themselves to the peculiar ideas of the people, and so introduce the truth that they may do them good.”3
The idea of missional optimization invites us to continue seeking better ways to present the unique truths of the three angels’ messages to people who have very different starting points. With God’s help, good theology, and thoughtful practice, we can develop powerful missional presentations for the unreached.