It’s Missions Month at Mt Hermon, and we will devote the next two editorials to thinking about missions to the world and in our homes. We have already seen how technology has allowed us to hear directly from our mission partners in Thailand and Myanmar. Here’s an article1 on how we can use social media to emulate Paul in the Aeropagus in Acts 17. May it encourage us to use technology missionally, but retain a human touch in discipleship! ~ Pastor Luwin Wong
I live a few miles away from the site of what friends claim was the world’s first coffee shop. Established in the 16th century, this bustling café became a hub of recreation, leisure and debate in the part of the world I call home. Within a few decades, coffeehouses morphed into the centres of idea exchange, even gaining the moniker “penny universities,” as anyone could enter the conversation for the price of a cup of coffee.
Almost 400 years later, coffeehouses are still a social gathering space. But many of the patrons at my local café now just stare at their phones and laptops, because the internet is the new place where people exchange ideas, share thoughts and debate issues. In one sense, social media is the modern version of the coffeehouse.
For missions, this presents a great opportunity. We should capitalise on social media, the new realm of ideas, both for introducing people to new faith concepts and as a bridge to in-person gospel conversations.
Social centres where the intellectually hungry dialogue and debate didn’t begin with coffeehouses. During the New Testament era, Greeks loved to carve out public spaces for robust conversation. In Acts 17, Paul stepped into the Areopagus, where pagan philosophers spent their days doing nothing except communicating and hearing new ideas. Why did Paul engage with them? He knew he had profound spiritual answers to the questions they were asking. Not everyone wanted to engage in gospel conversations, but many found Paul’s “new” idea of the resurrection compelling and worthy of attention (v. 32).
Today, almost 5 billion users live and move on social media, the modern Areopagus. Whether reviewing the newest superhero film, decoding what is and isn’t fake news or seeking to spark social action, this is where people spend their time. The triviality and downright evil of much that transpires on social media causes many Christians to decry it, even if we don’t totally avoid it. But what if we viewed social media, despite all its ills, as an incredible opportunity? Like Paul, we might be provoked by some of what we see (v. 16), but we can still bring the gospel to that place.
What can we learn from Paul about stepping into our Areopagus? Tim Keller said a key to contextualisation is to “resonate with but defy the culture around you.” Paul personified this idea with those he met on Mars Hill. He listened and sought understanding before he began to speak. He identified their desire for transcendence (resonating), but he challenged it as incomplete (defying).
Modern missionaries can and should do the same. We can find points of contact, where the longing for God shows up as a desire for transcendence, justice, joy, honour, and peace. We can affirm the good of those desires but simultaneously challenge deficiencies through winsome questions and conversations.
New Roman roads
A friend of mine recently travelled through the ruins of Colossae. That ancient city is now just a grassy hill in the middle of an orchard. On the side of that hill, my friend found a middle-aged shepherd tending his sheep, a job that generally leads to sitting alone for days on end. After a short conversation, this isolated shepherd pulled out his smartphone and started scrolling through Instagram.
In the past, the opportunities for this secluded shepherd to hear the gospel in his language were incredibly limited. A church would need to send missionaries who would first learn his language and culture. Then, to reach him, those missionaries would need to bypass major cities and towns just to get to his small village, and eventually find him wandering through desolate places.
Now, because of this shepherd’s smartphone, churches and missionaries around the world have access to him. They can easily get the gospel and portions of the Bible in front of him. When he has questions, they can answer in real-time. If he’s ready to believe, local Christians can begin discipling him, possibly even starting a church in his area. And this can happen with countless people simultaneously, from nomads in Africa to businesspeople in Europe to housewives in the Middle East.
Not a replacement
While social media is a powerful tool for the missionary task, it isn’t a replacement for face-to-face relationships. Paul didn’t stop in the realm of ideas; he spent much time in the lives of those he loved, unhurried and undistracted by the constraints of the screen (Acts 17:17–20, 32–34). The best online engagement strategies lead to in-person follow-up. Social media can enhance, but not replace, believers sharing their embodied selves as they live out the implications of the gospel.
Just as God has built his kingdom through conversations in coffeehouses and debate venues for hundreds of years, he can build it through social media and virtual spaces in this one. He’s still using new ways and means to lead the nations to the old, old story of Jesus and his love.
1 Article by Ken Midkiff, a church planter in Asia, extracted from: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/modern-areopagus-people-listening/