LIFE VERSES 9: Acts 17:17

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In this series I’m sharing some of the Scriptures that have most radically influenced my own life and faith. Read full series here.

I love the moment in The Lord of the Rings when Samwise turns to Frodo and asks, “I wonder what kind of a tale we’ve fallen into?” The two hobbits perceptively realized that their lives were somehow part of a story far bigger than themselves, and though small in stature they had an enormous role to play in the unfolding drama.

In college and seminary, I was likewise finding my own life swept up into a bigger story and trying to discover my unique role in the plot. The version of The Story that shaped my imagination, and soon my vocation, is the Book of Acts.

I felt pulled into the ongoing drama of God calling ordinary men and women like Paul and Stephen, Lydia and Priscilla, to boldly advance the movement and message of Jesus across the known world. Acts tells the stories of Paul being led by the Spirit into unchartered territories where he established a base of operations in someone’s house or a rented out lecture hall. He took up part time work as a leather worker making tents during the day, and then sought out ministry opportunities after hours.

From 2003-2007, I was doing a hefty amount of “tent making” myself as I worked  part time jobs during the day in order to pay for my seminary studies at night. My jobs, as I’ve shared many times elsewhere, were all in the local schools in my hometown — sub teacher, basketball coach, driving instructor.

I could relate to Paul whose primary passion was to teach the Bible and preach the good news of Jesus Christ to all who would give him a hearing. Yet, he needed to make a living, put food on the table, and cover his expenses.  So he put off his vocational dreams, and spent his waking hours doing the daily grind in the marketplace, bumping shoulders with the common crowds gong about their everyday life.

I can imagine Paul growing impatient at times and bickering under his breath to God, saying things like: “Lord, I thought you called me into full time ministry? You told me you had a special calling on my life to spread your message far and wide! So, why am I stuck here in this hot, smelly, dirty workshop making canopies and tents all day? When will you release me to my true calling?”

That was my life during these years. I was finishing my master’s degree in Bible & Theology, with a burning desire to teach the Bible. Yet, I was stuck spending my days sub teaching in other people’s classrooms, monitoring middle schoolers in the hall way, enduring high school drama in the cafeteria, handing out worksheets and pushing “play” on a DVD player. I was stuck in the passenger seat of a driver’s education car with 15-year olds, making small talk for hours on end.

For several years I wondered, “Is this where all my education has brought me? Will I ever get on with my true calling? When will you release me from these tent making jobs in order to pursue full time ministry and teaching?”

Enter Acts 17:17.

Paul helped me discover the great truth that God’s mission is most effective when we bring the message of the gospel beyond the walls of a church or the halls of a seminary, and we engage people in the “everyday places” as people go about their everyday lives.

Paul’s ministry in Athens described here would radically reshape my view of ministry — both individual witness and church outreach. When I read Acts 17:17 during this frustrating time of my life, something shifted deep in my being as I thought about my vocational goals and my current season of less than enjoyable tent making work.

 

The big revelation was this: Paul’s work as a teacher and preacher was not confined to a synagogue/church building or a lecture hall. He realized that only religious Jews will come to a synagogue to consider his message. He wanted to reach the masses of “unchurched” pagan people who would never darken the door of a church.

So, we read in Acts 17:17 that he not only “went to the synagogue to reason with the Jews and the God-fearing Gentiles” but he also “spoke daily in the public square to all who happened to be there.”

This realization that seems so common-sensical now, was revolutionary for me. In fact, most churches continue to ignore Paul’s ministry strategy here. We still spend most our time trying to get people to come to our religious building on Sunday and forget that most people these days will never “come to us.” We need to bring the life, message, Way of Jesus into their world, onto their turf,  if we’re going to get a hearing.

This verse was the foundation for my Revolution youth ministry I spearheaded in Mound in 2005-2007 that attempted to meet teens on their own turf, hanging at Caribou Coffee, hosting concerts in the school auditorium, meeting in homes, at parks, and trying to distance our gatherings from the church buildings because of the ways they unintentionally turn unbelievers off.

(When I finally left all my tent making jobs to accept a full time youth ministry job at a church, I was shocked how little interaction I now had with people all week. I used to spend all week in the schools with students. Now I saw them mainly Wednesday nights and Sunday mornings, and found myself staring a cubical wall all week “preparing” for ministry. I had left the marketplace and hunkered down in the safety of the church.)

This very blog and many of my writings found their origin in this verse as I have tried to bring “reports from the intersection of faith and everyday life.”

In 2010, we began to plant a church community that would have as its motto (and now painted in huge letters in our worship area) “In the marketplace daily with all who happen to be there” (Acts 17:17). The church is called “MainStreet” which comes directly from this idea of being a church “in the marketplace” i.e., on MainStreet.

When we looked for a place to worship, we intentionally chose to move into a strip mall plaza where we’re literally able to be a church that is “in the marketplace every day.”We continue to strive to be a church “beyond the walls” and find new and creative ways to do ministry in the everyday spaces.

So, as far as Life Verses go, there are few more significant in my life than Acts 17:17 as I have made Paul’s “marketplace ministry” strategy a continued challenge and model to follow.

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