In His farewell speech before ascending to heaven, Jesus commissioned His disciples to be His witnesses among people of every nation of the world (Matt. 28:19). “Nations” in Matthew 28:19 refers not to nation states but to “people groups.” A people group refers to a group of individuals that have a common sense of history, language, beliefs, and identity. There is no human society on earth where the gospel of Jesus should not be presented and where disciples should not be made for Him. Frontline mission agencies, such as Global Frontier Missions and the Joshua Project, estimate that there are about 17,446 people groups in the world, with more than 7,400 of them considered to be unreached by the gospel. In other words, 42 percent of the world’s people groups lack indigenous communities of Christians who are able to evangelize, without an external witness, the rest of the people groups. Ninety-five of the least reached people groups by the gospel are spread across the 10/40 window, an area mostly populated by tribal people, Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, and the non-religious. Some of these people groups have little or no access to the gospel. People not yet reached by the gospel also exist in Western nations, because of the widening impact of secularism.
Paul: A Versatile Missionary
This week’s study introduces us to witnessing to people who have nothing, or very little, in common with Christians in terms of religious beliefs and values. People of diverse ethnic origins and many dissimilar religious commitments live and share public life together. Because of their unique set of worldview assumptions, these people have different spiritual needs and aspirations. It is within this multireligious world that we are called to share our faith and make disciples for Christ. At first sight, this task is daunting. It necessitates venturing out of our religious comfort zones, exposing ourselves to unfamiliar jargons and codes, reevaluating our attitudes (stereotypes and biases) toward people with perspectives other than our own, and learning new evangelistic approaches. As if that were not enough, many non-Christians do not view Christianity favorably. Fortunately, we have in the Bible precedents of missionary endeavors to reach such people.
After his conversion to Christianity, Paul demonstrated untiring commitment to the propagation of the gospel to all nations. However, Paul approached his audiences differently, depending on whether they were Jews or Gentiles. In comparing what he said to the Jews at a synagogue in Antioch (Acts 13:13–43) with his presentation of the gospel to a Gentile audience at the Areopagus in Athens (Acts 17:16–33), we see that Paul showed a great deal of sensitivity to his given situation, as well as to his audience. In Antioch, Paul quotes Scripture to build his case that Old Testament prophecies find their fulfillment in Jesus. In Athens, Paul begins with what his Gentile audience was the most familiar with: the altar to the unknown God and sayings of their own poets, instead of a series of Bible passages. Paul uses what his audience knows to speak to them about “the Lord of heaven and earth,” who created everything. Without condoning the Athenians’ beliefs, Paul commends them for being religious. This positive statement about his audience might have been intended to secure their interest in the rest of his speech. Although he was deeply disturbed by the multiplicity of their idols, Paul was restrained in his behavior. Any display of anger and accusations against these people who had no knowledge of God’s special revelation would have deprived him of a precious opportunity to present the gospel to them. It is important to note that Paul’s sensitivity to the Athenians’ life situations did not prevent him from calling them to repentance.
The above point is best illustrated by Mark Allan Powell’s 2004 publication of the results of his research on the impact of people’s daily realities on their reading and interpretation of Scripture (see Mark Allan Powell, “The Forgotten Famine: Personal Responsibility in Luke’s Parable of the ‘Prodigal Son,’ ” in Literary Encounters With the Reign of God, Sharon H. Ringe and H. C. Paul Kim, eds. [New York: T & T Clark, 2004]). In the first phase of this research, Powell surveyed two groups of seminary students, one in the United States and the other in St. Petersburg, Russia. The experiment consisted of asking the students to read the story of the prodigal son in Luke 15:11–32, close their Bibles, and then recount it from memory as accurately as possible to one another in their respective groups. Powell discovered two major differences in the oral recounting of this parable. On one hand, while only 6 percent of the American students remembered the famine mentioned in verse 14, 84 percent of the students in St. Petersburg referred to it. On the other hand, 100 percent of the American students emphasized the prodigal son’s squandering of his inheritance, whereas only 34 percent of the Russian students remembered this detail. For the American students, the mention of the famine seems to be an extra detail that adds nothing fundamental to the story. Because they had no recent recollection of famine, they all emphasized the squandering of wealth as irresponsible behavior. However, for the Russian students, who lived and interacted with some of the survivors of the 900-day Nazi army siege of the city of St. Petersburg in 1941, which triggered a famine that killed up to 670,000 people, the mention of the famine was a significant detail that added a lot to the story. This experiment is a good illustration of the need to adapt our message to our audience, both in style and content, just as Paul did with the Athenians.
Need for Innovation in Mission Praxis
Compared to his contemporaries, Paul was unconventional in his approach to ministry, especially in Athens. He could even be described as avant-garde when it came to the need to be versatile and adaptive in mission. His unique missionary qualities are desperately needed today. The modern-day Areopagus exists in different parts and forms in many urban centers. It could be a city square, a park, a street corner, a shopping center, a university amphitheater, or a café. The church needs members with corresponding gifts, talents, personalities, and creativity, empowered and released for ministry in such centers. Members who are equipped to enter into nontraditional spheres, as well as engaged non-Christians, should be entrusted with the latitude to explore new ways of sharing the gospel, even if these ways appear at first to be unorthodox.
God’s asking Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, the son through whom God promised to make him the father of many nations, was unconventional (Genesis 22). Elisha’s telling Naaman to “go in peace” after Naaman made his two strange requests (2 Kings 5) was very unsettling at best (see last week’s lesson). God’s telling Isaiah to roam the streets of the city naked for three years, declaring a message of doom for Judah’s allies, was really bizarre (Isa. 20:2–4). Think about the embarrassment Micah might have felt when God asked him not only to walk around naked but to howl like a jackal and moan like an owl (Micah 1:8)! In light of these biblical precedents, “When read in its context, the Bible offers many statements and examples that show God’s approval for methods of mission that may go against the grain of our comfortable practices. Broad reading and the clear texts of the Bible . . . suggest that God is more open and creative than we are. If that is the case, we should not be quick to condemn that which is different or uncomfortable.”—Jon Paulien,“The Unpredictable God: Creative Mission and the Biblical Testimony,” in A Man of Passionate Reflection, Bruce L. Bauer, ed. (Berrien Springs, MI: Department of World Mission, Andrews University, 2011), p. 85. Instead of continuing to plow the mission fields with traditional methods, we need to be flexible, resourceful, and open-minded in regard to new, and even unfamiliar, approaches to God’s mission. Mission originated with God and remains His provenance. We therefore need to be dependent on Him. As King Jehoshaphat did, let us always turn to God, saying, “We do not know what to do, but our eyes are upon you” (2 Chron. 20:12, NIV). If we are sincere, God will reveal His will to us. Maybe His way will not be conventional to us just as Jehoshaphat was instructed to send his army to war with singing. But one thing is sure: doing mission and ministry God’s way, and with God’s power, will accomplish His salvific purposes of reaching all segments of society.
All humans are influenced, and limited, by the assumptions of their cultures and their worldviews. That important fact should be taken into consideration in our presentation of the gospel. Paul’s ministry offers us a good example of outreach to non-Christians. Below are a few basic principles meaningful to our mission to those who have not been exposed to the gospel:
People’s cultures, with their deep-seated worldview assumptions, are their only frame of reference. People cannot be confronted with things that are beyond their frame of reference and be expected to respond positively to them. It is, therefore, essential to always be sensitive to the daily realities of the people to whom we witness.
We need to act with restraint and respect in our attitude toward non-Christians. We can get significant insights about non-Christians by studying their belief systems and talking to them for the sake of finding common ground that could be used as a point of contact for presenting the gospel.
We also should focus on our audience’s felt needs and aspirations and show them how Christ answers them. We should not allow our own cultural perspectives to get in the way of how God wants to introduce Himself to non-Christians through us. It is important that, in presenting the gospel, we refrain from assuming that our audience knows what we know about God, cares about values we care about, understands the concept of sin as we do, and feels guilty and in need of God’s forgiveness.
Finally, we need to guard ourselves against watering down our message in the process of adapting it to our audience. The gospel is meant to challenge aspects of all worldview assumptions that are not in line with Scripture.