“Common Ground”
My name is Buck Salem, and I have been working as a campus minister in CCH’s International Ministry department for about four years now. Over the past few years in my highly evangelism-focused
ministry, 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 has been a very instructive piece of scripture.
In it, the apostle Paul says:
19 Even though I am a free man with no master, I have become a slave to all people to bring many to Christ. 20 When I was with the Jews, I lived like a Jew to bring the Jews to Christ. When I was with those who follow the Jewish law, I too lived under that law. Even though I am not subject to the law, I did this so I could bring to Christ those who are under the law. 21 When I am with the Gentiles who do not follow the Jewish law, I too live apart from that law so I can bring them to Christ. But I do not ignore the law of God; I obey the law of Christ.
22 When I am with those who are weak, I share their weakness, for I want to bring the weak to Christ. Yes, I try to find common ground with everyone, doing everything I can to save some. 23 I do everything to spread the Good News and share in its blessings.
In this blog post, I would like to share with you the way this passage has affected my ministry. Before I say anything about these verses, though, I would like to briefly share a little bit about the difficulties I’ve encountered in the first few years of my ministry.
My ministry has definitely had its seasons of encouragement. However, it has also frequently been characterized by much effort and passion with little observable fruit; much tireless yet ineffectual case-building for the gospel; much frustration and heartbreak; much misguided focus; much unfair and unhelpful speculation on my part about others’ attitudes and willingness to believe; and at the center, an endless stream of new acquaintances and friends who are almost immovably entrenched in their skepticism toward God and His Word. Needless to say, God’s assistance in grappling with these challenges has been a major answer to prayer. It is my belief that 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 contains an answer to most of the above difficulties.
Evangelism is about trying to lead people closer to Jesus—specifically, people who are having, to varying degrees, trouble believing in God’s truth. Faithful Christians are called to minister to nonbelievers. We are also called to minister to fellow believers, who have their own doubts at times. I have observed that many Christians respond very differently to doubting skeptics than we do to brothers or sisters in Christ who are wrestling with doubts in their faith.
When a fellow Christian confesses to us that they are experiencing doubts, we feel inclined to reassure them that such doubts are totally normal, and we may even share our own past experiences with doubt. Dialogue with these brothers and sisters in Christ brings us to a place of heightened vulnerability and humility, and ultimately builds trust. However, when a nonbeliever tells us how hard it is for them to believe in God, many of us are inclined to have an almost opposite response. It may feel unnatural or even wrong in such situations to respond with heightened vulnerability, humility, and trust. This is unfortunate because as far as I can tell, a vulnerable, humble, and honest response may be our only shot at having a significant impact on many skeptics, and specifically on their skepticism.
So, why do we react to two people (one a fellow believer, one a skeptic) with similar doubts in such drastically different ways? When we identify someone as a threat (and this identification often happens on a subconscious level), we automatically adopt a defensive or oppositional attitude towards them. Alternatively, if we identify that person as someone who needs our help, we subconsciously start trying to cultivate trust in the relationship. In Paul’s explanation of his approach to ministry in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, he demonstrates an astounding ability to view all sorts of people who think he is dead wrong as potential friends in need of help, instead of viewing them as threats. He then gets to work establishing “common ground” with those people. You may ask, “What common ground could I possibly have with a skeptic?” Certain parts of what I am about to suggest may seem a bit strange or challenging, but it represents what I have found to be a Biblical and powerful approach to evangelism.
I have found that people will not begin to trust my worldview unless they begin to trust me as a person. I have also found that a person will not fully trust me until I have fully put myself in their shoes. This means doing my best to understand their perspective through their eyes—doing my best not only to fully acknowledge the strengths of their perspective, but also to fully acknowledge the difficulties associated with my own beliefs.
There seems to be a balance in the approach that Paul endorses in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23.
On one hand, the point is not to try to find the absolute minimum amount of common ground on which to build trust. After all, Paul subsequently says, “I do everything I can to save some.” I have been in situations where a skeptic friend of mine has said something like, “It’s not exactly easy to believe in a God I can’t see, hear, touch, taste or smell.” In situations like this, I was led by my instincts and emotions to identify the statement as a threat, and to shift into an oppositional or argument-building frame of mind. This response never seemed to move our long term dialogue in a productive or open-minded direction.
In recent years, I have started to suppress my instinctive reaction, and to respond instead with statements like, “Yes, I definitely see your point; believing in an invisible God is more difficult than a lot of people admit.” I noticed that when I started demonstrating more humility and vulnerability in these conversations, and when I took every reasonable opportunity to agree instead of disagree, many of my friends were caught off guard and became interested in discussing things further in a more explorative and non-combative way.
The other side of the balance is to remember that although Paul tried to find common ground with everyone, there was obviously a limit to what he could agree with in an honest way. For some Christians, to agree with an atheist on almost any points of skepticism would be a breach of their personal integrity, because they truly cannot empathize with an atheist’s perspective in almost any way. However, there is something to be said for trying to stretch one’s capacity for viewing a Christian worldview from a non-Christian’s perspective—just as Paul undoubtedly had to do as he became all things to all men. 
In conclusion, God has been rewiring me to understand that powerful evangelism has much less to do with case-building or strong arguments, and much more to do with the tone of the dialogue and quality of the relationship at hand. Starting to put ourselves in the shoes of our non-believing friends may be both the most difficult and the most beneficial thing we ever do for our personal evangelism. If we make the choice to take this incredibly scary step, we will not only often see a change in our friends’ hearts, but also in our own, making us more able to view those friends as potentially earnest truth-seekers instead of stubborn skeptics.
Shahob “Buck” Salem – International Ministry