There were about 40 of them, seated on the grass or on benches, their shukas wrapped around their shoulders, their sticks and clubs near at hand. Men of the Maasai tribe listened as men from my tribe, the Joshua’s Men of 12Stone Church, spoke with them about American culture and customs. They shared their customs and culture with us in return, and our dialogue stretched on under the equatorial sun.
Inevitably, as happens with almost any mission trip, the conversation turned to Jesus. Who he was. Who he is. Why he matters. Why the Maasai men needed him in their lives.
And one by one, those same men who had moments earlier been engaged with us began to disengage. One by one, those men turned their backs, or their heads, or turned to their phones for refuge.
One by one, we began to lose those Maasai men at the moment when we most desperately wanted to keep them.
My friend (and native Kenyan) John Njoroge once gave me the greatest advice and rebuke I’ve ever received as a Christian leader. After listening to one of my chapel messages at work one day, John came over to me in private and complimented me on my passion for sharing Jesus. Then he said something I’ll never forget.
“Be careful that the Gospel you share will work anywhere. If it will not preach in places like Kenya or India or China, then it is not the true Gospel.”
I cannot overstate the impact of John’s wisdom on my spiritual life. And I cannot tell you how much it proved true during my time in Kenya.
Growing up in America, I have a distinctly American view of the Gospel. It’s essentially this:
Every human being is a unique creation of God, known by God, and loved by God. But each one of us has screwed things up. We’ve sinned against God, turned away from his words, and as a result we live in a world that is decidedly against us. We suffer broken relationships, broken communities, broken spirits. We feel the pain of this brokenness even if we can’t articulate it, and it is that brokenness that God wants to resolve within us.
So, to repair that brokenness, God sent his Son, Jesus, to die for our sins. All we have to do is confess our sins, accept Christ’s death and the forgiveness it offers, and we can instantly become a new creation, restored to God and the blessings of fellowship with him.
Now, if you’re American and have come in contact with Christianity here, that version of the Gospel should sound familiar. It may not be exactly how you’d present it, but chances are you recognize the high points. The story we tell is essentially some derivation of that message.
And it’s a good story. It works here. We live in a highly individualistic nation. We encourage people to be their best. We celebrate one-in-a-million success stories and stoke the flames of the American Dream. For some of us, the Gospel functions as the mystical component of our Hero’s Journey – it is the blessing of the Divine, when the gods step in to aid us on our quest. It makes sense because we are the heroes of our stories. The narrative revolves around us.
Sitting on the grass in Kenya that day, I could see that our story – our Gospel – didn’t make as much sense.
The issue we ran into – the issue my friend John pointed out to me with his wisdom – was that the story the Maasai lived was very different from the story we live in America. The Maasai culture is built on community above everything else. They have rules and everyone follows the rules because the rules are what keep them safe. The rules produce their warriors. The rules produce their homes. The rules produce their livelihood, their commerce, and their food supply.
And because those rules are the heartbeat of the community, and because the community is the key to survival, very few people ever step out on their own. Individualism isn’t a core value for them.
So a Gospel that embraces individuals doesn’t resonate. If anything, it causes confusion.
All my life, I’ve learned that evangelism was essentially forcing people to fit into the story we told. That’s why missionaries were so important – there were people all over the globe living in the wrong story. It was imperative that we, the enlightened, travel to them to help them understand the real story and accept their place within it. Evangelism was the burden of getting people into the right narrative.
Even here in America, one of the conversations you’ll hear when it comes to evangelism revolves around helping people understand they are lost. If you can get them to embrace the premise of your story, the theory goes, then they are much more likely to embrace the story altogether.
I can’t say that the idea is wrong; there are people all over the world that don’t understand the story in which they find themselves. They do need to understand God’s greater, larger story and how it impacts them. Where we as Americans go awry is trying to make the American Gospel the true Gospel.
I think, if I could go back to the Maasai men and present the Gospel again, I would talk more about God the Father who made the entire human race. I would emphasize God’s desire for community and relationship with him. How being close to the Father and living according to his wisdom and rules brings the safety, provision, and peace we long for as people. I would talk about Jesus coming to restore us to the community of God, of turning us away from living apart from the family of which we all are part.
I would tell a story the Maasai would understand, because the Gospel of Jesus Christ is an anywhere Gospel. The story we find ourselves in is larger than we can fathom, richer than we know, and runs deeper through our human veins than we could ever hope to comprehend. It is truth and beauty and the news we all desperately need to hear.
And as my friend John taught me long ago, it is a Gospel that works everywhere.