Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Evangelism in a Globalized World: 1 Thess 1:4-8

I continue with my Tuesday with Thessalonians series. Today I look at 1 Thess 1:4-8

 4 For we know, brothers and sisters loved by God, that he has chosen you, 5 because our gospel came to you not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction. You know how we lived among you for your sake. 6You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit. 7 And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. 8 The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia—your faith in God has become known everywhere. Therefore we do not need to say anything about it, 

Paul views the gospel’s arrival as beginning a chain reaction with Thessalonica at the epicenter. It was like dropping a stone into the center of a quiet pond. At first there is the initial splash, then ripple after ripple reaches out until it fills the entire pond. In Thessalonica the gospel caused an initial “splash” (1:5a; cf. Acts 17: 1-4) and formed a series of concentric rings beginning with the way the apostles chose to live among the Thessalonians (1:5b). The rings expanded to include the Thessalonians who became imitators of the apostles and the Lord (1:6). Eventually the rings expanded beyond the walls of Thessalonica so that they became an example to other believers living in the far flung areas of Macedonia and Achaia (1:7). But the splash did not end there. The concentric rings from the initial splash extend far beyond Thessalonica to places and in ways that neither Paul nor the Thessalonians could have predicted nor imagined (1:8). In fact, the events in Thessalonica are so well-known that the apostles can sit back and say nothing. The results speak for themselves (1:8).

The world is becoming increasingly smaller and more interdependent. Globalization as an economic, cultural and political phenomenon is linking the world in ways never before seen. Whatever our opinion of globalization, we must acknowledge its existence and the impact that it is having on how ministry is done, in particular missions and evangelism. Most of the world now participates in a global culture connected by better communication, an interdependent economic system and is formed by a way of thinking patterned on the scientific method.

Religion has also become globalized. As Muck and Adeney point out, “religion” as a generic category is more viable in a globalized world (Christianity Encountering World Religions:, 17-18). In the past, “religion” generally only meant one thing, depending upon where you lived. For instance, if you lived in the west it meant Christianity, Islam if you lived in the Middle East and Hinduism if you lived in India. Religion was, at least perceptually, more regional than global. Now, the lines are blurred and it is common to encounter people of other religions in whatever region of the world you may find yourself.

I have seen this blurring of the lines happen in my own lifetime. I grew up outside of New York City on Long Island.  When I was in school it wasn’t uncommon for other kids to ask “what is your religion.” By that question they meant: are you Catholic or Jewish? In my neighborhood you were either Jewish or Catholic. Those two groups represented the vast majority of religious identities in my area, even in a place just outside of the New York metropolitan area. Yes, there were other groups there. But they were few enough in number that we did not notice them. Now, however, it’s not unusual to see a sign for a Buddhist temple or the minarets of a mosque among the church steeples and synagogue menorahs.

The globalization of religion invariably impacts our ministry and evangelism. There is an increasing chance that the person working with you, walking in the park or answering the door is going to be Muslim, Hindu or a member of some other religious group that is not Christian. We no longer live in a world where religious identity can be assumed based on the region in which we live. Just as globalization has opened up the market place to products and services from around the globe, it has also brought religion to new places and Christianity no longer encounters these religions. It coexists with them. 
While religious globalization might be threatening to some, there are some parallels with the first century. In the Greco-Roman world the religious market place was not just an economic metaphor to describe the dissolving of geographic, political and economic boundaries between countries and regions. Religion was literally in the market place. I remember the first time I toured ancient Corinth and was struck by the way that the temple of Apollo dominates the agora. Archaeologists have uncovered and identified some nine temples and seven shops/markets from the first century all scattered among one another in the agora.  The close proximity of temple and market explains why some, if not most, of the meat available in the shops had been butchered as part of temple sacrifice, a problem Paul confronts in 1 Cor. 8-10. The situation was probably the same in Thessalonica. While much of first century Thessalonica remains unexcavated, the city’s forum has been excavated along with some of its shops. Remnants of inscriptions and buildings belonging to a number of temples, including one dedicated to worshiping Caesar, have been found suggesting that religion in Thessalonica provided a smorgasbord of opportunities for worshipers.

But this mixture of religions in the market place was not only a pagan phenomenon. Early Christians do not seem to have been shy about opening a church in the same neighborhood as a pagan temple. In the third century Syrian city of Dura Eurpos located on the Euphrates River, archaeologists have uncovered more than thirteen different temples.  If you walk the streets at the western edge of town you pass by a number of pagan temples or shrines as well as a Jewish synagogue and a Christian house church. Consequently, when Christianity came to town the religious marketplace was already very crowded. Religious pluralism typified all ancient cities and Christianity did not step into a religious vacuum waiting to be filled. Christianity was one among many competitors vying for attention and support.

The religious setting of the ancient world also impacted evangelism. As noted above, it does not seem likely that the first Christians in Thessalonica initiated a missions movement to spread the gospel. On the contrary, the troubles they encountered at home probably kept them preoccupied. Besides, the church was still very young and still in need of learning much about the gospel, as Paul himself acknowledges in 3:10. Yet, word about what was going on in Thessalonica spread to the surrounding area. Their “turn from idols” to worship God (1:9) seems to have been enough to get the attention of a lot of people. Their life style was radical enough that they did not need to advertize it. People seemed to notice.  Moreover, considering the religious market place of the Greco-Roman world, there was no need for them to go outside of their own city, they were able to be very effective in their own location. They were salt and light within their own community.

In a globalized world, missions no longer require us to move to a foreign land. In previous centuries it was possible to never encounter someone from another people group and culture. Now, it is almost impossible not to encounter someone who is different from us racially, ethnically, religiously. This means that for many of us the opportunity for missions exists right where we live. The concentric rings can start in our own cities and neighborhoods. The gospel “splash” happens where we live.

1 comment:

  1. John, I like the part obout concentric rings. Still, I want to read about the power, the miracles of which Paul speaks. That is really exciting. The global church has latched onto that and uses it in its evangelism. Also, I am not convencied that the Thessalonians were not sharing their faith with words, deeds and signs. After all, the boldness to convert in a hostile context is the boldness to share why you are excited enough to convert. Some have called NT evangelism, "gossiping" the gospel.