As Christians, although we’re eager to share the gospel with the world, we can struggle to share our faith in a way that meets the other person where they are at in life. This is because our experience of Jesus and the gospel is understood through the context of our own lives and our own culture, which influences how we share that message.
It’s definitely a lot easier to share the gospel in a way that’s most comfortable for us. In a Canadian ministry context, this often can look like approaching people and engaging them in conversation on campus with the toolbox of questions and tactics we’ve been taught.
But how often have we thought about how the other person actually receives the message we’re trying to convey?
If you’re like me, the answer is, “Not a lot.” When I went on my first missions trip with Power to Change to Denmark, I was convicted of this. While in Copenhagen, I learned that we have to contextualize both the message, and the means by which we convey it to the nation or people group we want to reach.
But what does this look like in practice?
Contextualization means meeting people right where they are, through listening in and learning about their culture.
An important aspect of gospel contextualization involves trying to discover the parts of their culture that are naturally congruent or agree with the gospel, along with the parts that challenge or disagree with the gospel. This helps us navigate building relationships and having conversations about faith.
To truly understand Danish culture, I had to park my preconceptions at the door, start with a clean slate, and let my senses take in the country from a fresh perspective. I learned that in order to see the world with Danish eyes, I had to take off my own cultural lenses.
To do this, I started observing, listening, and talking to Danish students.
For example, one of my teammates met a follower of Jesus – Kristina – who invited her to go swimming at her local pool. My teammate invited me along to keep her company.
Now, the pool isn’t where I usually talk about faith. As a former competitive swimmer, I’m used to keeping my head down, talking very little, and staring at the black line at the bottom of the pool, while swimming lap after lap.
But with Kristina, we stopped at the end of each lap and just talked about life. My teammate and I learned that although Kristina wanted to share her faith with her Danish friends, she struggled to do this because of the reserved culture.
Similarly, when I asked a few Danish students how they described themselves as a culture, they used words like ‘reserved,’ ‘cold,’ ‘quiet,’ or even ‘stand-offish.’ I learned that Danes don’t really open up or volunteer information about themselves even to close friends, unless the person they’re talking to opens up first. Yet, like the rest of the world, they also deeply desire intimate connection with the people in their lives.
From these interactions, I learned that our outgoing Canadian way of walking up to students and engaging in conversation won’t be as effective in Denmark, and that we require a more indirect way to reach the Danes.Every nation or people group’s culture has some sort of connection to the gospel. As I swam lap after lap with my teammate and my new Danish friend, I found this connection through hygge.
Hygge seems so ingrained in Danish culture that even Danes sometimes have a hard time describing it.
From what I gathered in my short stay in Denmark, hygge (pronounced, hyoo-guh) describes a cozy atmosphere. This usually means an intimate gathering with close friends at someone’s home, sitting on a few pillows, lighting some candles and talking about life over a cup of coffee.
Interestingly, hygge provides just the right atmosphere to develop trust, and intimate relationships and to share life together.
Danes might be averse to talking about faith in a public place but when brought to a more intimate setting, they tend to let their guard down and tell you what they really think. Meeting a friend where they feel most comfortable and hyggeligt (the adjective for hygge) shows that I care enough about them as a person to go out of my comfort zone.
Throughout our week in Copenhagen, my team and I learned that if we shared our personal experiences of Jesus and how the gospel has brought us lasting peace and true joy, then Danes were more likely to have a positive attitude towards what we had to say.
This is because our personal stories are not only engaging and relatable; they also encourage vulnerability from the other person by making us vulnerable.
In that space, as their spiritual curiosity grows, I then have the chance to share my personal journey of experiencing Jesus and encourage them to discover Jesus for themselves.
But how exactly does hygge in Denmark provide a natural cultural context to do that? I found some insight and inspiration from the book of Acts in the Bible:
Simply put, engaging in hygge with other Christians models an early house church.
Acts 2:42 describes the early church this way:
“They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”
Luke, the author of Acts, further describes the church as,
“Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved.”
Reading this, you can imagine new believers gathering around a candle-lit table over freshly-baked bread, roasted lamb and some wine, listening to the apostles recount the time Jesus walked on water, or tell about the time when Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount.
Imagine how hyggeligt it must have felt to sit shoulder to shoulder with fellow believers singing psalms of praise to God, and afterwards, holding hands to pray for the persecuted churches around the Roman Empire.
Because of the reserved nature of the Danish culture, a helpful way for Danes to understand the message of Jesus and the community of the church can be through hygge – their context of relationship and community building.
As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9:23,
“I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some. I do all things for the sake of the gospel, so that I may become a fellow partaker of it.”
Since Danes find part of their cultural identity in the nation’s deep Christian history, most Danes we met had an opinion on Christianity – but it wasn’t always a positive one. Add to this the fact that it’s become more socially acceptable to be an individual with zero religious affinity, and you get a generation of young Danes that have become stoically tight-lipped about their thoughts on God and faith.
Because of these reasons, the gospel message won’t resonate with Danes if we only focus on communicating the ‘necessary information’ required to believe in Christ.
If we talk to them about sin, heaven, and the propitiation brought about by Jesus’ blood, chances are, they’ll zone out or worse, push us away.
This risk of alienating a potential Christ-follower just because we shared the gospel in the wrong way necessitates learning to adjust our ministry approach to fit a nation’s cultural values and understandings even more.
When we finished swimming a lap, I shared my ideas of hygge-as-missions with Kristina, because I wanted to hear her thoughts about it, but I wasn’t prepared for her reaction.
When I suggested that maybe she could invite her non-believing friends over to her home for hygge, her face immediately lit up.
From her explanation, I gathered that for Kristina, using hygge to create a space to talk about her faith with her friends was a novel concept, and yet it felt familiar and comfortable at the same time. I felt her relief at the knowledge that she didn’t have to share her faith the gung-ho Canadian way, and instead, that she could do it in her own gentle Danish fashion.
As my teammate and I walked back to the rest of the Power to Change team in the cold Copenhagen air with our hair wet and our hearts full, we marvelled at how this seemingly reserved, closed-off Danish student shared so many intimate details about her life just because we met her somewhere she felt the most at home.
We praised God that despite the fact that a public community pool was, in our minds, the most uncomfortable and unlikely place to share the gospel, God used that situation to allow us to encourage and equip a fellow sister-in-arms.