The temptation when we look at Paul’s missionary activity in the book of Acts is to assume it is a blueprint for how we might evangelize today in our context. Our cultural context is widely different today from what Paul was working with. For one, Paul was a Jew. He knew the Jewish people well because he was one of them. In fact, the reason he could keep going to the synagogues to discuss scripture is that Christianity had not yet become separate from Judaism. Paul had not just spent extended time listening to the Jews but had grown up a Jew (Leong, Race and Place, 117). When he went to a new place he was going to a people whose culture was familiar because they were his people.
In fact, we don’t see Paul shifting his attention to the Gentiles until Acts 18:6-11. This is a significant turning point for Paul. Whereas we see God opening up the door to the Gentiles through Peter in Acts 10-11, up to the point of Acts 18 in the narrative, we have no primary focus on a Gentile audience. The conversions of Gentiles appear to be both secondary and accidental. Jacob Jervell points out the fixation Luke has on the Jewish mission for much of Acts: “For Luke it is more important to show the growth of the church up to the beginning of the Gentile mission… In the Jerusalem period, nothing seems to fail for the missionaries when the goal is winning Jews for the gospel. Only the leaders of the Jews, or at least some of them, reject the message…the ‘noble’ Jews are faithful to the Scriptures, and these are the ones who are converted (17:11ff)…” (Luke and the People of God, 46). Even during Paul’s message in Athens, Paul is trying to reach the Jews there with the gospel (17:16-18). When Paul decides to turn his complete attention to the Gentiles, it is for the first time. This was a profound discovery for me about Paul, since previously I had the impression that he immediately became an apostle to the gentiles, and that this was his focus throughout his whole ministry. In fact, it was much later in his ministry that this became the case. Another reminder of how fully rooted early Christianity was in Judaism.
In today’s context, when it comes to the Jewish people, they have now endured a long history of antisemitism and hatred at the hands of Christians. This is vastly different from Paul’s situation where Christianity had little history except for the history of the Jewish people and of the cross. Paul, as well as all the Christians at this time, was identifying with the oppressed, not the oppressor. The message of the cross was still scandalous in that it involved the lordship of a man who had made himself powerless. For Jewish people and many others, Christianity now has come to resemble nothing different than other power-hungry, violent, greedy, and corrupt institutions of this world. This is perhaps most true for Jewish people today since their oppression at the hands of Christians has been the most extensive throughout history. In Acts, it seems that people were able to retain their Jewish identities when becoming Christians. Perhaps this is one way Jews today who become Christians might do so without having to identify with a Christianity that is so different from Christ, and instead with the more primitive faith that still existed under the umbrella of Judaism.
Likewise, how does mission look in a place where white Christians have used their power and privilege in abusive ways for hundreds of years? The ironic support of slavery, lynching, and continued racism from American Christians throughout its history is a disgusting reversal of primitive Christianity. How could we ignore this context that is so vastly different from the situation Paul was operating within? How can we ignore a context where it is not obvious that the Christian faith is different than other religions in its orientation towards power?
When we go to Acts it’s easy to detach how the mission of God played out in Acts from its context. If certain parts of Acts are mapped onto some missional efforts today without considering our own context, it may very well end up perpetuating colonial approaches. This is why Leong suggests the practices of listening and lament before evangelistic engagement (Race and Place, 117-120). Especially in the American context, and many other contexts throughout the world, these practices are imperative in building trust and establishing a different orientation towards power within communities. There are a variety of ways one can listen to their community, but this is a subject for a later blog.
What I’m saying here is not that conversions or evangelizing should never take place before years of listening and lamenting, or to even say that going into a community simply to evangelize with the gospel is wrong. To say this would seem to be putting God in a box. God can still move people towards the Christian faith, in some cases rather quickly, in ways that are often unexpected and not according to plan. However, our posture ought to be one of listening and lamenting so we can understand those we are trying to reach. This could take a long time of listening and lamenting, of people seeing the light of our good deeds (Matt. 5:16) before people will trust the Christian message enough to give their allegiance to Christ as Lord because of the obstacles mentioned above. Such a change in posture may also influence our evangelistic efforts in general so that evangelism is no longer incompatible with a posture of listening and lamenting.
Jonathan Lichtenwalter has written and edited for the website evidenceforchristianity.org, articles for renew.org and his website jonwalt.com, He has studied under John Oakes, Ph.D. (creator of the website evidenceforchristianity.org), and is currently getting a Master’s in Missional leadership from Rochester University. He is passionate about missional theology, apologetics, and biblical studies. He loves to use his writing and studies to build up the faith of others, to help disciples grow deeper in their understanding of scripture, and to share the truth of the gospel with others.