How to Evangelize Cross-Culturally

Churches in multi-ethnic settings must work hard to communicate clearly, with due regard to careful biblical theology.

In our church in Dubai, we have witnessed conversions of people from Eritrea and Uzbekistan, Syria and South Africa, Scotland and Spain, Iran and India, the Netherlands and Bolivia, Germany and China, and more.

They are from religious and non-religious backgrounds, traditional and progressive, Muslim and Hindu, young and old.

What’s the key to unlocking the hearts of these people from such an array of cultural and religious backgrounds?

The answer is, there is no cross-cultural key. We don’t do evangelism in Dubai any differently than we would anywhere else. Our evangelistic methods are singularly uncreative and old-fashioned. To suggest that some people are easier to convert than others is foreign to the Scriptures. All of us, by nature, are “far off” (Acts 2:39). So in our evangelism we must bear witness, pray, and await the sovereign move of the Spirit.

There is no “key” for escaping a spiritual morgue.

But this doesn’t mean that cultural diversity is irrelevant to evangelism. Most of the world’s cities are becoming more and more ethnically diverse. With more than 200 nationalities in its labor market, Dubai is ahead of the curve in this area. The world has descended on Arabia, bringing both challenges and opportunities for evangelism.

Here are three lessons we’ve learned living and ministering in an ultra-multi-cultural environment. 

Communicate Clearly

Muslims are taught from childhood that God has no Son. Hindus deny there is one transcendent Creator who grounds all existence and morality. Secular humanists think religious truth is relative. So, with whomever we’re speaking to, we must define our terms clearly.

With Muslims, we unpack what the Bible means about God’s Son. It doesn’t mean that the Father and Mary physically produced offspring, like Zeus and Danae did. It means the eternal image of the invisible God, who preexisted the universe, came down himself and took on flesh. With Hindus, we work to explain a moral universe, one where good and bad are defined by God’s character and his revealed will. There’s no use talking about “sin” (Romans 3:23) or pointing people to the “Son” (John 3:16) until we have unpacked these freighted concepts.

In multi-cultural settings we must, as D. A. Carson has said, “start farther back in our evangelism to provide more of the Bible’s storyline for the good news to cohere . . . so we have to unpack more of the doctrine of God, and thus of the Son, to a generation that knows nothing of the Trinity.”[1]

This is why, when Thabiti Anyabwile publicly dialogued with Muslim imam Shabir Ally in Dubai, his opening statement was a 20-minute survey of Old Testament theology leading up to the life and ministry of Jesus. Unless the listeners grasped the storyline of the Bible, the significance of the atonement would be lost on them.

Showing this kind of sensitivity to our context is simply clear communication. This is all the more important among people who are biblically illiterate and inoculated against a biblical worldview.

Proclaim the Word

James teaches that God “brought us forth by the word of truth” (James 1:18). Wherever we are, the agent of regeneration is biblical revelation, read and proclaimed. This is why, in our evangelism, if the person can read, our goal should be to study the Bible with them, regardless of their culture.

“Friendship evangelism” is increasingly popular in the Middle East and beyond because of the (mistaken) impression that we should not directly communicate what the Christian message is, but rather allude to it until friends show an openness to hearing more. Friendship evangelism emphasizes that we must earn the right to speak the gospel to another person.

But friendship evangelism can wind up being friendship only. A well-intentioned missionary here invites her Muslim friends into her home. They drink tea and discuss current events. She prays with these women and offers them advice. They support each other amid marital strife and employment difficulty. But they never open the Bible. These women hear that Jesus will solve their problems but never actually discover who he is on the pages of Scripture. These women continue to be friends, but to what end?

Of course, we ought not use people as evangelistic projects. But as one evangelist here told me, there is a danger of too much friendship and too little evangelism. Excessive concern about context and techniques tends to overshadow the command simply to “preach the Word” (2 Timothy 4:2).

Use the Local Church

Whatever continent you’re on, the church is a gathering of people who are indwelt by God’s Spirit, and who gather weekly for preaching, singing, prayer, and the ordinances. Paul expected the weekly assembly not only to build up the believers, but also to convict non-believers who attended (1 Corinthians 14:25).

Mehdi and Shabnam, an Iranian couple, walked into our church building in Dubai looking for information about Jesus. They had been investigating religions other than Islam—Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism)—but found them wanting. Shabnam recalled, “I never had the feeling that I could talk to God because I didn’t follow all the rules.”

One of our pastors explained the good news of Jesus Christ to them and introduced them to members of our church. They began attending, hearing God’s Word, and getting to know people from dozens of different nationalities, observing their relationships.

In time, they believed the gospel and were baptized. As they recalled, “It was unbelievable. God touched our hearts!” Mehdi and Shabnam not only heard the gospel; they saw Christ in our love for one another.

Since Christ is among his people, the church is Jesus’ evangelism plan. The local church is the confirming echo of what we proclaim, a three-dimensional display of the gospel.

Foreign to All Cultures

Increasingly, global cities are home to multi-national churches that worship in English, the lingua franca of our day. These churches reach into countless national and ethnic groups, even through English as a second language. When expatriates return to their ancestral homes, they take the gospel back with them.

It’s true that multiculturalism poses challenges for evangelism. However, regardless of where we’re from, we must remember that the gospel is foreign to all of our cultures. For all our diversity, we are still sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, in need of the one remedy that only Jesus could secure: redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

Churches in multi-ethnic settings must work hard to communicate clearly, with due regard to careful biblical theology. We must be centered on scriptural truth that will slice through all manner of cultural and religious barriers. And we must hold up the church as the display of the gospel to the nations.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by 9Marks on February 6, 2024. Used with permission.

[1] Jesus the Son of God: A Christological Title Often Overlooked, Sometimes Misunderstood, and Currently Disputed (Crossway, 2012), p. 85.