Try and imagine being a person like this:
You were raised by atheist parents who lived in a strained relationship (or divorced), and were into pleasure and materialism. You were schooled to compete and succeed despite the consequences for others. In your teens you discovered the joys of recreational sex and alcohol, maybe even some drugs for awhile. These freedoms then had to compete with the stress of taking a job, fighting your way up the corporate ladder of success while trying to hold onto the last vestiges of youthful hedonism. Your relationships, bound as they are in self serving desires, are fragile and futile, leaving a trail of hurt. Outwardly you're groomed with all the right accessories. You might be financially stable or you might be in debt, but the world around would never know. Ethics are about what helps you succeed. Ambition is what feeds your soul. Morals are a tool to manipulate others, yet something to espouse around the dinner table as a means of self promotion. Entitlement is a culture that's been bought en masse. Spirituality is about recipes of behavior that may give you momentary patches of peace. Church was for marriages and funerals. God? He's irrational. Values are situationally dependent. Christians are dull and deluded.
This describes many of the people around you. Maybe it describes you? And for every one like this, there are a myriad of other parallel life stories that differ only in the minor details.The question is: how far would you go in order to see things from another angle, from the perspective of someone who does not know God, from the point of view of the contemporary world. Of course seeing someone else's point of view does not mean agreeing with them, but until we can stand in their shoes we'll struggle to understand them, and unless we understand them, it'll be hard to love them.
Now of course we're all used to hearing a conversation that includes “Yes, I understand your point of view, but ...” What is often really being said is “Keep quite and listen to me”.
Becoming what we need to become in order to really communicate is hard work; you have to fight your own preconceived notions, put effort into trying to imagine someone else’s experience, and accept that what’s nonsense for you may actually make sense for someone else. It's also scary, because we have to think about things we don't want to hear, we fear our own doubts. To explore another person's perspective is to expose one's own weaknesses – and in today’s global church of weak intellect Christians, that's always a risk.
Now I know you can read the description of a person above, but can you imagine being such a person? Really? Pause before you answer. Think about it. If you were this person, how would you approach all the situations we each encounter on a daily basis. If you were at the bar and someone invited you home for the night, how would you evaluate that opportunity? When confronted with same sex relationships, skipping time off work, casual one night stands, telling white lies in a report for work, manipulating finances for gain, addiction to the perverse side of an easy-access internet, or longing for the weekends drinking binge – for any of these issues and more, if you were the person described how would you respond, and can you understand why the response would seem natural, logical, and right? Because until we can do that, we'll struggle to talk to them about Jesus.
I met someone recently while I was traveling, he was an aggressive Christian. I think he thought he was doing the right thing, but without understanding anything about me he proceeded with a flow of rhetoric filled with Christian'ese. As a Christian I could understand him, but I wanted to escape as fast as possible. Imagine a non-Christian's reaction, and subsequent perception of Christ.
Sure, this event was an extreme case, but such a failure to understand the other person in order to love them, to reach them for Christ, is a pervasive failure of the global church.
This is what Paul is saying; I will become what I need to become to reach all people for Christ. That means how I strategically go about doing things, and the effort I expend to leave my place of security and step into another persons world. Its how I say things, how I listen, where I go, and so much more.
And for us as a church it means how do we conduct our activities when we meet as a body?
I don't know what the answers are. I think I know what the answer is not: it's probably very unlikely that the answer is to conduct our church life unchanged from yester-year. I think the answer probably needs to include a massive dose of reality check about the world around us, with commensurate effort to understand it, real effort.
It is probably safe to say that most Christian's social circles are often a poor reflection of the surrounding culture – we become so quickly disconnected that Paul's attitude is something we forget; to step into the world-view where the other people live, not waiting or expecting them to find a way through the opaque boundaries of Christian culture. To be in the world but not of the world. And that goes for the church collectively as much as it does for each of us individually.
So my question: how serious should we be about 1 Cor 9:19-23, and where would we start?
Personally, I think it starts with an investment of effort to understand, really understand, the culture around us. Reading about it. Talking about it. Engaging it. Seeing it in the Bible story, and seeing the Bible story in the world around us. Understanding does not mean learning; learning is only the first step – understanding means internalizing what it means for someone else in experience, emotion, and attitudes. Jesus did this. So did Paul.