What can Christians Learn From Israel Folau?
As you’re probably aware, Israel Folau’s Australian rugby union career appears over after a three-person panel ordered that the Wallabies star’s four-year contract be terminated as punishment for his breach of the players’ Code of Conduct.[i]
My purpose in writing this blog is not to criticise Israel Folau. I’ve watched some of the videos of him speaking at his church, and he appears to be a genuine young man who loves Jesus and the Bible. He certainly believes he has done the right thing by his faith, and no amount of money can persuade him otherwise. I admire that.
My intention with this blog is to ask what those of us who identify with the Christian faith can learn from Israel Folau, especially as we look at what the Bible says about how we should share our faith.
I believe the most important thing for Christians is to discern who our hearers are.
The Bible teaches that different people need to hear the Christian message in different ways. The apostle Paul changed his method and his message depending on who he was speaking to (1 Corinthians 9:19-23).
Israel Folau has 364,000 followers on Instagram. I imagine that many people who follow him do so because he’s a rugby superstar. Some will be Christian, others won’t be. He has a mixed audience, and so his message needs to be delivered with wisdom, understanding where they are at and making the message suitable for their hearing.
Jesus did this. When he taught in Synagogues, he read from the Scriptures and preached the Word of God. Why? Because his audience believed in God and were looking for the Messiah. They were “low hanging fruit” ripe to be picked. But at other times, when he was speaking to a mixed crowd, he told stories that people could identify with. He tailored his message to his audience (Matthew 13:11).
Acts chapter two tells the account of Peter and the apostles in the Temple Court on the Day of Pentecost. The audience was comprised of people who were in Jerusalem for the Jewish Feast. They were believers looking for the Saviour. Out of a crowd of up to 250,000 people, 3000 became followers of Jesus on that day. Many others converted over the following months and years.
When you’re speaking to people like that, then a blunt message about sin and repentance is what they’re ready to receive. Unbelievers may not be prepared for that kind of communication, and they are repelled rather than attracted to the Gospel as a result.
Consider Communication Style
The apostle Paul also had a habit of going to the Synagogue first – a practice he started as soon as he got saved (Acts 9:20).[ii] But, when his audience was different, he changed the way he communicated. For example, the Philippian church was made up almost exclusively of gentiles, and so, when he wrote a letter to that church, he included no quotations from the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament). Why? Because they had no frame of reference. Paul’s purpose was communication, and he chose to build bridges with his audience rather than erect walls!
He did the same when he visited Athens (see Acts 17:16-23). While Paul was waiting for Silas and Timothy to meet him in that city, “he was deeply disturbed in his spirit to see that the city was full of idols”. You’d think that would be a good time for Paul to do some street preaching, wouldn’t you? Standing on the street corner yelling the Gospel to people walking past, telling them they’re a bunch of idolatrous sinners who needed to repent or go to hell.
But Paul didn’t preach. Instead, he went to a couple of places where he would find some people who were at least interested in listening to him, a place where he was permitted to speak. “He reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks” (verse 17).
Next, he got into a debate with a group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers who took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus [where] all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas. Sounds like a great place to preach the Gospel. But even there, Paul was respectful, and not critical, of their culture and religion.
Remember, the day before he was “deeply disturbed in his spirit to see that the city was full of idols.” But he didn’t allow his disturbed spirit to overflow in a rant against sin. He demonstrated the utmost respect for them by saying:
“People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So, you are ignorant of the very thing you worship —and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.”
He went on to share with them about Jesus’ resurrection, but he did this by quoting two of their most respected philosophers, Epimenides and Aratus. The story of the unknown god also taps into their popular history of the day (see my blog Race, Culture & Religion).
Paul taught on being sensitive and discerning towards other people in chapter 14 of his first letter to the Corinthian church in which he classifies people into three groups – believers, unbelievers, and inquirers. Inquirers, or the unlearned, refers to someone who is not fully initiated into a religion. Christian people would do well to discern who they are communicating with before they speak, write, or post on social media.
Israel Folau’s meme on Instagram, based on 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, was written to a church community, to believers. Paul was addressing behaviour inside the church, not outside. He was correcting an extremely immoral situation in the church in which a man was having an affair with his stepmother. Incest was considered the worst of sins in the ancient world, and Paul was horrified that this was happening in the church and that people were actually proud of it. He wrote to correct this and remind them not to be deceived, “wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God?”
Paul didn’t write a letter to the City of Corinth, nor did he write it to be read out on street corners (or to be posted on social media). He wrote it to correct the poor behaviour of Jesus’ followers who should have known better.
Consider Good News
Unbelievers and inquirers need to hear the good news about Jesus in a way they can receive it and when they’re ready for it. It’s interesting to note that the words “repent” and “repentance,” from Acts to Revelation, are only used to address a group of Jewish believers or a church. Repentance is essential, but people need to hear the Gospel FIRST. They then ask, what should I do? That’s when you tell them.
The apostle Peter puts it this way, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15). Paul reminds the Roman Christians that it’s God’s kindness, forbearance, and patience that leads people to repentance (Romans 2:4). He tells Timothy that, “opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth.” (2 Timothy 2:25).
In his letter to Titus, Paul encourages him to teach the churches he leads the truth of Scripture, “so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Saviour attractive” (Titus 2:10b). This is because “the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people” (Titus 2:11). Salvation is for everyone, and no one should be put off the good news of the grace of God by the bad behaviour of God’s people (Titus 2).
Consider What’s Attractive
According to McCrindle Research, one of the repellents to religion and spirituality is “hearing from public figures and celebrities who are examples of that faith.”
A famous Christian may believe they are doing God’s work by posting random verses from the Bible on social media, but the likelihood is they’re turning a lot of people away. The top attractor to Christianity is “seeing people who live out a genuine faith.”
If we genuinely want to see people come to Jesus and discover his love, grace and forgiveness for themselves, we need to learn to live out our faith in a better way.
1.3 Treat everyone equally, fairly and with dignity regardless of gender or gender identity, sexual orientation, ethnicity, cultural or religious background, age or disability. Any form of bullying, harassment or discrimination has no place in Rugby.
1.6 Do not make any public comment that is critical of the performance of a match official, player, team official, coach or employee/officer/volunteer of any club or a Union; or on any matter that is, or is likely to be, the subject of an investigation or disciplinary process; or otherwise make any public comment that would likely be detrimental to the best interests, image and welfare of the Game, a team, a club, a competition or Union.
1.7 Use Social Media appropriately. By all means, share your positive experiences of Rugby but do not use Social Media as a means to breach any of the expectations and requirements of you as a player contained in this Code or in any Union, club or competition rules and regulations.
1.8 Do not otherwise act in a way that may adversely affect or reflect on, or bring you, your team, club, Rugby Body or Rugby into disrepute or discredit…
[ii] See also Acts 13:15, 42; 14:1; 17:2; 18:4; 19:8
Rob Buckingham is the founding pastor of Bayside Church, a thriving faith community located in the Bayside suburbs of Melbourne, Australia.
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