What Bruce Lee Taught Me About Evangelism

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I grew up in the 90's when action stars like Chuck Norris, Jackie Chan and Steven Seagal where every boys heroes (at least every dorky boys hero's). We used to sit down and talk for hours about their fighting skills and every time, without a doubt, a debate would break out on which of them would win in a real fight. Could Samo Hung take out Jean Claude Van Damme? How about Jackie Chan taking on Bolo? And on and on we went. And yet, almost without fail one of us would stand up and whisper a name. A name so revered that the moment it was mentioned, the conversation was over. The debate had ended. There was just no comparison. That name was "Bruce Lee."

In all my years, I have never heard anyone say "this guy can beat Bruce Lee". In our minds, he was on a whole other level. There were great fighters and then there was Bruce Lee. He was undefeatable. 

Whether our quasi-worship of Bruce Lee was merited or not I suppose is a conversation for another place and another time. But regardless of how accurate our assessment of his fighting ability was one thing was true - Bruce Lee is the most significant martial arts icon to have ever lived. Not only was he a great fighter, he was also a great philosopher and he singlehandedly turned the world of combat sports upside down.

Bruce Lee had a belief and it went something like this. Kung Fu, the martial art that every one seemed to fear, was not that scary at all. The reason was because Kung Fu only worked if the person you were fighting was fighting according to the same rules you were fighting by. But the moment you fought someone who operated on a different set of rules and was good at it, your Kung Fu was at risk of becoming meaningless. For example, Kung Fu is primarily a striking sport. You stand up and throw punches and kicks. Jiu-Jitsu is primarily a grappling sport. You take someone to the ground and wrap them up in submissions. If a Jiu Jitsu fighter took a Kung Fu fighter to the ground, the Kung Fu guy would be completely helpless. All of his years of training prepared him to compete against an opponent who agreed to his rules, and nothing else. The moment those rules were effectively bypassed, his black-belt was meaningless.

But Bruce Lee didn't single out Kung Fu in this. Instead, he criticized every martial arts discipline as being useful only when the opponent was either totally unskilled or was fighting according to the same rules. The moment you faced a skilled opponent fighting with a different set of rules, your chances of dominating the fight dwindled. As a result, Bruce Lee advocated for what has become known as Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). His point was that a fighter should aim to master diverse fighting styles and combine those into one. In doing so, the fighter would be capable of fighting well even when the opponent changed the rules.

As an Adventist passionate about evangelism, I found myself challenged by Bruce Lee. You see, our way of doing evangelism is just like Kung Fu. It only works if the people we are evangelizing are either completely unskilled in their own belief system or if they are playing according to our set of rules. But the moment we encounter someone who is good at playing by a different set of rules, our evangelistic tactics become meaningless.

For example, if you were preaching an evangelistic series and came to the topic of the Sabbath one of two things can happen. If your audience is primarily classic protestants then your sermon on how the Sabbath was changed to Sunday could be convincing. After all, they already believe in the Sabbath. The only thing you have to show is that its not on the first day but on the seventh. However, if your audience was post-modern or post-Christian the entire sermon would appear unneccesary at best and narcissistic/ narrow at worst. All your arguments would prove meaningless.

So here is what I learned from Bruce Lee. Our greatest weakness in evangelism is that we assume everyone around is pursuing truth according to our rules. And our failure to play by their rules is the main reason why our proclamation lacks power and relevance. Therefore, rather than having a cookie cutter approach to evangelism and truth we need to study the cultures around us and develop mixed approaches. We need to nurture the ability to communicate truth to diverse worldviews which means we have to learn and enter into the worldviews that surround us. As we do, we can more intelligently adapt, innovate and contextualize our message and our method to be effective even when our audiences play by a different set of rules.

Our greatest weakness in evangelism is that we assume everyone around is pursuing truth according to our rules. And our failure to play by their rules is the main reason why our proclamation lacks power and relevance.

However, as cool as this is, Bruce Lee is not the originator of this "mixed" approach. Jesus is. All throughout scripture we see him presenting the gospel of the kingdom in diverse ways. To Nicodemus he says "you must be born again" - a metaphor linked to Nicodemus' theology as a descendant of Abraham. To the woman at the well he said, "I am the living water..." - a metaphor linked to the woman's spiritual thirst. To the rich young ruler he said, "sell all that you have...", to Mary "I am the resurrection..." and to the crowds "a farmer went out to sow..."

The diversity of metaphors and illustrations Jesus uses to introduce people to his kingdom are amazing. He is the originator of "mixed evangelism". And the pattern continues in the life of Paul. When he spoke to the Hebrews he used the old Testament. When he spoke to the Greeks in Mars Hill he used their own poets (Acts 17). But perhaps the strongest evidence of "mixed evangelism" is in Acts 15 and 16. In chapter 15, the Jerusalem council affirms that under the New Covenant circumcision is no longer necessary and is in fact "anti-gospel". Yet, despite this, in chapter 16, Paul circumcises Timothy as they prepare to evangelize the Jews. Neither Paul nor Jesus assumed that their audience was playing by their rules. Rather, they adapted their evangelism to the rules of their audience.

We as a church, if we want to remain relevant, must do the same. Let's stop assuming everyone is playing by our rules. Let's learn their rules, enter into their mindsets and value structures, and meet them where they are.

For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.
— Paul, the Apostle (1Corinthians 9:19-23)


Comment Questions

  1. Have you ever had an experience where you tried to share your faith and none of your arguments worked?

  2. If there was a resource that could help you develop a "mixed" approach to evangelism, what would it look like? (ie. book, course, videos, online class etc.)