Where I grew up, I remember people telling me about a guy in town who served in the Vietnam War. They explained that he was in some sort of Special Forces unit where he was dropped in the jungle by himself for his missions. As you might expect, he was described as the tough guy who could pretty much do anything. Missionaries have wound up in unfamiliar places as well – think about one of the most well-known, Operation Auca with the Elliots, Saints, McCullys, and Youderains. We have all heard stories about people who were thrown into foreign places and cultures and expected to adapt in order to fulfill their mission—whether missionary or military.
What we may not realize is that many of us find ourselves in similar scenarios, though under less extreme circumstances. This could be a new workplace, a new community, a new church, a new family, a new group of friends, or a new school. However, just being in a new place does not fully put us in a similar scenario, like the guy in the example above, we must have a mission in this new place. What is our mission? Well for the Christian, it is a commission given by our Lord,
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:19-20
With this commission in view, we could say that as Christians, there is no place the Lord could send us where his mission does not stand. Therefore, if the mission always stands, then the lack of Great Commission following that we find in our lives must be our fault, not the one who gave the mission. Where do we most often find this failure in following the Great Commission in our lives? Isn’t it often when we find ourselves in new places? Isn’t it also in places where we have not yet figured out that the gospel has bearing? So it could be in places that are new to us or in places that are new to our understanding of the gospel’s impact on them. So where do we start?
FIND AND GET TO KNOW THE PEOPLE
Since the mission given us by our Lord is about people, it is helpful to know where the people are. For a new school or workplace that isn’t terribly difficult, because we’re thrust in the midst of a bunch of people every single day. For a new community or church it may take a bit more time in finding people particularly because in these types of scenarios we don’t spend as much time with people in these places as we might elsewhere. Much of this is about opening our eyes to the people who are in front of us. Paul exemplifies this for us in Acts 16. After he was forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia, he winds up in Philippi after the Macedonian man appeared to him in a vision.
“And on the Sabbath day we went outside the gate to the riverside, where we supposed there was a place of prayer, and we sat down and spoke to the women who had come together.” Acts 16:13
Paul went looking for people. Plain and simple.
Once we have found people, the process of getting to know people takes time. Languages need to be learned, or instead getting to know how the people talk. Knowing how people talk around us will help us to know what they find important, what they believe, and what they value. Paul does this in Athens to a degree, as he shows familiarity with their poets, “as even some of your own poets have said,” (Acts 17:28b). This brings out an important element of learning the language of a people, which is to learn about the entertainment they enjoy and the various forms of the arts with which they engage. This can often bring about some of the most personal connections with people. Ultimately, this is about getting to know the culture and that is exactly what Paul did. If you have worked for a large company, they will likely spend a great deal of time trying to talk about and build their culture. They want their culture to flow down to the people and become a part of the company’s DNA. Every place has its own distinct culture and we can better know the people when we learn the culture.
God brought my wife and I to a new church about twenty-five minutes from our house nearly two years ago. Though that distance doesn’t seem that far, it is a different town, school district, and county. Lots of things make this new place quite different from our old stomping ground, which is only a short drive away. Everything I learned about what used to be home in terms of demographics, needs, understanding of and openness to the gospel, and just basic values is not applicable to this new place. Through understanding these differences, we can learn more about the people with whom we have been placed.
GET TO KNOW THE STORY
So we have found the people, we have gotten to know the language, and even gotten to know some of the surroundings of this new place. What’s next? While in Athens, before mentioning their poets, Paul says,
“Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.” – Acts 17:22b-23b
Paul makes more than simple observations about what he sees, but he uses those observations to develop a story. The story he develops is the story of Athens or rather what is really going in Athens beneath all the people, culture, and supposed knowledge. Of course, if we know the rest of what Paul says after verse 23, we know that he is building towards something.
Every place has a story residing underneath all that is going on; a story that people are living according to. Michael Horton, in the introduction to his book, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way, says,
“The inextricable connection of faith and practice in terms of drama, doctrine, doxology, and discipleship has evident corollaries in every philosophy, religion, and culture. The drama determines the big questions as well as the answers” (15).
What Horton says here speaks to what we are grappling with in terms of the stories behind the people we encounter in these new places. As Horton says, the drama (story) determines all the big questions that people are asking and what the answers to those questions are. In Athens, Paul knew an underlying story was being told through what the people of Athens said, did, and thought. These stories pointed to what the Athenians believed about the world. When we understand the stories people who we find ourselves among in these new places believe, we are then ready to take the final step in obedience to our Lord’s commission.
APPLY THE STORY
Paul shows us that in Athens he is not merely a sociological commentator. In other words, he does not walk around Athens and just make comments and conclusions about what he sees. Instead, he knows that to understand the people, the culture, and the story that lies beneath both, he can find the access point through which he can give the gospel story powerfully and effectively. Paul says,
“The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.” – Acts 17:24-25
Paul goes on even afterward to point for point respond to the story that the Athenians had been living with the true story of the gospel. Horton says,
“The Christian faith is a counterdrama to all of the meganarratives and metanarratives of this passing age – ancient, medieval, modern, and postmodern. It speaks of the triune God who existed eternally before creation and of ourselves as characters in his unfolding plot” (19).
In other words, the true story of the gospel speaks into and sits sovereignly over any other story about reality, truth, and how the world supposedly is. The gospel deems contradicting realities untrue as it points to the ultimate truth, which is embodied perfectly in a person, namely Jesus Christ.
Through this engagement with the stories, we are pointing to the story that points to Jesus. However, we will have a harder time applying the story of the gospel to our culture if we don’t first know it. We don’t have a definitive amount of time that Paul was in Athens in Acts 17; however, he was there long enough to observe and know the culture and the people. Paul was always living with his mission at the forefront of everything he did. Wherever Paul wound up, either by his own planning or the Lord’s direction, it was always the place that God wanted him. If we could talk to Paul now, he wouldn’t attribute his single-minded focus for this mission to his apostleship or being a missionary, but to his call to be a disciple of Christ who made more disciples.
Let us consider the places that God has put us as purposeful, strategic appointments from our Lord. Whether we have just arrived at our place or have been there for quite a while, let us ask God to help us open our eyes. We would do well to follow the pattern of the apostle Paul—getting to know people, getting to know their story, and applying the story of the gospel. No corner of creation is considered mundane or hidden from the King. Our families, workplaces, schools, communities, churches, lunch tables, favorite breakfast places, waiting rooms, and every other nook and cranny of our lives are places that God has put us for his glory. The guy in the Special Forces from my neighborhood wasn’t dropped in the jungle so he could build himself a hut to cozy up and watch Netflix. He got to work fulfilling his mission the minute he touched down. May we do the same.
Nick Abraham (MDiv, Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary) lives in Navarre, OH with his wife and daughter. He serves as an Associate Pastor at Alpine Bible Church in Sugarcreek, OH. He is a contributor to Make, Mature, Multiply: Becoming Fully-Formed Disciples of Jesus and blogs at Like Living Stones.