Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings. (1 Cor 9:19-23)
My son plays video games. It’s a great pastime of this generation, and I have no doubt I would have been equally captivated if such games had been available when I was his age. It was only when I was older that these games appeared, though for a long time you could only find them for a quarter in the back room of pizza parlors. Now there are businesses that offer hundreds of networked computers and video consoles so that you can play the same game at the same time with any number of people. My son asked me if he could spend a day in one of these places with a group of his friends. I agreed, though it meant I had to spend the day there also.
When the parents of the other boys came to pick them up at the end of the day (a day filled with pizza, sodas, and a lot of shouting and exuberance), they found the boys all seated in a row, wearing headsets, chattering with one another. Each on his own video game console, but playing together in the same game scenario. I was right there next to them, playing also. The parents were amazed, staring at me. “You play these games also?” They were looking at the computer screens, bewildered by the confusing graphics, sound effects and information flashing by; apparently none of them had ever played a video game with their kids.
Finding common ground with people can be difficult. It’s not just that we’re busy, though that’s part of it. It’s that we’re so busy that, when we have time to enjoy ourselves, we want to spend that time in the way that relaxes us the most. If you’re a golfer, and you have time to relax on the weekend, you want to get out and golf. If you enjoy sitting in front of the television, you gravitate to your living room when you have a chance to unwind. If someone asks us to participate in something we don’t find as fun or relaxing, our tendency is to decline and protect our free time.
We underestimate the power in shared interests. Especially when we step out of our comfort zone to make a connection with someone we care about. Some of the games my son likes to play I enjoy. Most are frustrating to me. But neither of those things matter. What matters is that his dad wants to spend time with him, doing something he enjoys. That’s what matters to me also. I’ve made that a priority, and it has become a source of joy in my life. What I’ve found is that, when it comes time for him to participate in something I value—like a weekend men’s retreat at my church—my son wants to come with me. He is the only young man there; the rest are mature guys. He prays together with us, joins in the fellowship, and has godliness modeled to him by Christian men. He is there because we have grown together, and he wants to spend time with me, as I do with him. At the price of some of my free time, I have gained a chance to make an investment in eternity with my son.
The same applies to marriages. Finding something your spouse enjoys and learning to appreciate and enjoy it yourself will build a connection with them. When you do that, you show them that they’re important to you and that you respect them, but even more, you develop the chance to connect with and care for them in the context of something they love. Visiting art galleries, going to a football game, window shopping, volunteering to help the poor. The activity itself doesn’t matter. I favor interactive kinds of experiences over passive ones (like watching movies) though there is some value in those also. Things that you can do together, as a team, are better than competitive experiences, though those can be enjoyable if you don’t get carried away. To avoid that, just remember why you’re there. You are seeking a connection with your spouse, to nurture them and draw them closer to Christ, to model the same love for them as God has for you. If that’s your goal, then even if you lose, you win.
Paul is writing in 1 Corinthians 9 in defense of his ministry. There is a group of people who have criticized or misrepresented him in his absence, and Paul is explaining his actions and motives among them. It’s a good thing that Paul so often found himself on the defensive; it causes him to explain motives that we need to adopt in our own lives. Things that will allow us to reflect Jesus Christ to others. One of those things is becoming all things to all people. It starts in our families and close relationships, but carries into every part of our lives. By seeking common ground with people—shared interests, even if they require effort on our part—we have an opportunity to make investments for eternity. If we stick to our routine, we will not build connections. We will not have the same chances to share our faith. The love of Christ is shared when we sit with people, in good times and bad times. When we become flexible and figure out the best way to meet people where they are at. When we respect and (whenever possible) join in their traditions and passions.
The result is blessing in our lives. Our relationships become richer, our marriages deeper. That friend you couldn’t imagine coming to Christ might listen and accept the truth you share with them. My bond with my son will allow me to encourage him in Christ in what I know will be some interesting teenage years ahead. But it’s also the joy God pours out in our hearts, when we leave our comfort zone to accomplish something that matters in this life. This is our ministry. Not just to tell people about the gospel, but to model it. Not to stand outside the world and shout the gospel at it, but to go into the world and express it through our love. To share life with people, even things that seem trivial in themselves, so that we can also share something eternal.
It all begins with the relationships directly in front of you. Who can you become, in their lives, to meet them where they are, and draw them to the Lord?