We never get there first

March 4th, 2020

Paul’s visit to Athens (Acts 17:16-34) is insightful with respect to evangelism and missiology. Today, I want to highlight only one insight — that we never get there first. God is always ahead of us, present in people and places before we ever arrive on the scene. Paul walked around the city and the first words of his public address in front of the Areopagus were, “People of Athens, I see that you are very religious in every way” (17:22).

Two phrases are quite telling: “very religious” and “in every way.” The presence of God was deep and wide. And Paul’s first words were a respectful acknowledgement of that reality. His understanding undercuts any notion that “we take God to the pagans.” God is already there. We never get there first.

The reasons for this are obvious even when our attitudes and methods say otherwise. A theology of creation in general, which includes the particular fact that the image of God is in everyone, is the basis for Paul’s words. So too, a theology of prevenient grace further teaches us that God is present and active before we are even aware of it, much less responsive to it. We never get there first.

My friend, Darrell Whiteman, uses this biblical truth as the basis for his teaching of missiology around the world. Adding to it Peter’s experience in Cornelius’ house in Acts 10, his teaching emphasizes “the importance of looking for where the Holy Spirit is already at work in the lives of people and in the structures of society, and becoming more welcoming and less judgmental.” [1]

He notes that this approach often causes people to confess that their evangelism and missions has carried an underlying negativity toward others, including in some cases a despising of others. Even referring to some as “unbelievers” is a very telling phrase, and sets a far different tone for our witness than Paul set for the Athenians.

Darrell goes on to say that the Petrine/Pauline approach in Acts 10 and 17 enables people to see with new eyes and greater empathy, “perhaps even understanding them more like God sees these people.” It is an aporoach, he says, that moves us away from latent ethnocentrism and into a fresh experience with the Holy Spirit. [2]

This is the spirit we are to exhibit in our witness. We are to begin with inward humility and outward respectfulness, both things arising from the understanding that we never get there first. Our witness connects with our having seen God in others, and connecting with their hunger for more. In our witness we are not “taking God to people,” we are acknowledging that God is already there and in bearing witness to Christ we seek to enrich the experience they already have. We never get there first.

[1] Dr. Whiteman’s statements are found in his May 2019 letter to supporters and other followers of his ministry. He serves through the auspices of Global Development.

[2] Ibid.

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