January 23, 2005

The Love of Christ Compels Us to Meet
Others Where They Are

Acts 16:1-5

Have you ever noticed how people respond when you make a serious effort to relate to them on their terms? Maybe you traveled to a foreign country and willingly ate a rather exotic dish prepared by the locals, just for you. Perhaps you attempted, however feebly, to speak their language. I remember hearing one of my seminary professors comment that, while he enjoyed a generally healthy relationship with his father, he never quite connected with him at a profound level until he took the time to learn German, his dad’s native tongue. Meeting people on their terms can open up new doors that we never knew existed before. Paul, here in Acts 16:1-5, seems to understand this principle.

Following the recent council meeting in Jerusalem, Paul continues his ministry by traveling northwest from Antioch to the towns of Derbe, Lystra and Iconium. He had preached there a few years before, and he barely escaped with his life—he was stoned and left for dead (14:19). Now, he does the only reasonable thing. He returns there and continues preaching and teaching!

Upon his arrival, Paul finds certain Christian communities alive and developing, and he also meets a noteworthy young, Jewish Christian named Timothy. Luke’s brief account here of their initial meeting hardly does justice to the importance of Timothy in Paul’s life. Paul elsewhere describes Timothy as his “child in the Lord” (1 Cor. 4:17), and Timothy appears in many of Paul’s letters as a vital companion to the great apostle. Paul is clearly excited about Timothy and eager to have his company. A squabble just a short time earlier that had sent Paul and his previous associate, Barnabas, in separate directions no doubt contributed to Paul’s excitement over his new apprentice.

Paul’s enthusiasm concerning Timothy and his obvious willingness to invest time and energy in this young man surely underscores Paul’s commitment to training leaders to carry on the work of the Gospel. As an aside, I can’t help but think about our ministry here at the Grantham Church in training future leaders for the church. In just the last three years, we’ve mentored close to twenty interns and two pastoral residents. At least four young people from our congregation are now in seminary training for the ministry, and others are on the way. We’ve sent many others out from here on mission trips, and we’ve begun with greater intentionality equipping our young people to serve as followers of Jesus in whatever vocation they choose. Paul gets excited when he meets Timothy, a young and gifted Christian with considerable potential. Training young people is worth getting excited about!

What is odd at first glance, however, is Paul’s eagerness to have Timothy, his new associate, circumcised before they continue on their way. Paul, you will recall, just argued before the council in Jerusalem that circumcision ought not be required of the many new, Gentile converts who had come to faith in Christ. Furthermore, Paul elsewhere concludes that “circumcision is nothing” (1 Cor. 7:18-19). Yet here, he immediately has Timothy circumcised.

Two factors must be stressed in wrestling with this unexpected development. First, Timothy is a Jewish believer, not a Gentile convert, and Paul never argued that Jews should abandon circumcision. Second, Paul had Timothy circumcised, not for Timothy’s sake, but for the sake of the anticipated Jewish audience to whom they would soon be speaking. In both 1 Corinthians and Galatians, Paul argued with great conviction that circumcision is unnecessary for salvation—people come to God through faith in Christ alone—and should therefore not be placed in the backpacks of these new converts. Here in Acts 16:3, Timothy’s salvation is not the issue. Missionary pragmatism is. Paul wants Timothy—a Jew himself—to be circumcised so that they might gain a more receptive hearing from the Jews in the area.

Paul’s thinking here reflects, then, not his argument against circumcision among Gentile converts, but his own principle for ministry expressed in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23:
For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave
to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews, I became as a Jew, in
order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law
(though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the
law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am
not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those
outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak.
I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I
do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in his blessings.
Missional pragmatism—that’s Paul’s principle here. That is why he was so eager to have Timothy circumcised. When we share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with those around us, we meet them where they are. We respect their views and traditions, and we seek to demonstrate our interest in them as valuable human beings. This important principle, I think, works well as we minister, both inside and outside of the church.

Inside of the church, I recall an experience I had a few years ago. A young Brethren in Christ pastor came up to me outside the snack shop in the campus center at the college. He excitedly informed me that he had just accepted an invitation to pastor a small and particularly conservative congregation somewhere in Canada. Virtually all of the women in that congregation continued to wear head coverings, a longstanding tradition with deep roots in our denomination. This pastor, however, also told me that neither he nor his wife found any value in such a practice, so they had decided that she would not wear a head covering when they were there. As he spoke, he looked eagerly at me, clearly expecting and hoping for my affirmation.

In response—and to his disappointment—I suggested that, if he and his wife genuinely wanted to approach the matter from a biblical perspective, she should wear the head covering. “Why upset the congregation before all of you have had the opportunity to get to know each other and trust each other?” I asked. “Is not wearing a head covering such an important conviction of yours that you would risk alienating an entire congregation before you ever begin? Instead, ask your wife to wear the head covering for awhile until you’ve been able to process the issue together with the people there. Meet them where they are. Become like them that you might win some.”

But think outside of the church as well. The year that I taught in Kenya, I first read Father Vincent J. Donovan’s remarkable book entitled Christianity Rediscovered. Father Donovan had been a missionary in Tanzania for scarcely a year and was already growing quite uneasy with what he perceived to be the ineffectiveness of “traditional” mission work among the Masai tribe. The mission station where Donovan worked was apparently successful—there were four well-run schools, a hospital, and even a little chapel. The missionaries, however, never learned to talk with the Masai at a profound level about God. They never got beneath the surface. They never really learned to know and appreciate each other.

So in May of 1966, Father Donovan wrote a striking letter to his bishop. Here are a few of the shorter paragraphs:
Looking at these people around me,…, I am suddenly weary of the discussions that have been going on for years in the mission circles of Europe
and America, as to the meaning of missionary work, weary of meetings and seminars devoted to missionary strategy.
I suddenly feel the urgent need to cast aside all theories and discussions,
all efforts at strategy—and simply go to these people and do the work among them for which I came to Africa.
I would propose cutting myself off from the schools and the hospital,…, and just go and talk to them about God and the Christian message…. Outside of this, I have no theory, no plan, no strategy, no gimmicks—no idea of what will come. I feel rather naked. I will begin as soon as possible.
And that is precisely what Father Donovan did. He spent time with the Masai. He bothered to get to know them and to respect them, not simply as potential receivers of missionary work, but as genuine people. And Father Donovan’s ministry was a true turning point in terms of sharing the Gospel among the Masai. “Meet people where they are,” Paul instructs us. Father Donovan did just that.

Meet people where they are. We can do this congregationally, of course, both inwardly and outwardly. We are called to respect the values and interests of each other as we move together toward greater godliness. We sometimes give up our own rights and do things out of respect for each other, as I encouraged the young pastor and his wife on their way to Canada to do, so as not to hinder the cause of Christ. We look for ways of meeting each other where we are in order to teach and encourage one another. Matt told me a couple of days ago that I could put this principle into action with the youth by playing more video games with them—meeting them where they are!

But we must also utilize this principle as we increasingly engage the world around us. Our second service and coffee house are selected examples of our trying to relate to people in new ways. Just this past Wednesday night, K. B. Hoover, one of the youngest ninety-year-olds that I’ve ever met, said to me after prayer meeting that, if our old approaches fail to bear fruit, we need to try new ones. We need to meet people where they are.

I am struck, however, with the realization that we can only do so much of this congregationally. This principle that invites us to meet people where they applies equally to the way that each of us lives out our individual lives. Timothy was circumcised in order to increase the potential effectiveness of his and Paul’s work among the Jews in the area. As you and I leave this place and move into the various areas in which we find ourselves day after day, how might we model a greater sensitivity to the people around us? How might we relate to people in fresh ways that strengthen our relationships and enhance our witness? How can we better meet people—people in school, people at work, people in the neighborhood—and more effectively live out the gospel among them?

Meet people where they are. Speak their language. Eat their food. Show interest in their customs. That is what Paul had in mind. That is what Father Donovan tried to do. And in reality, that’s the approach modeled by Jesus himself. He came and walked among us—he met us where we were—in order to bring us back to God.