In demanding times, mission-as-usual is not an option. Ian Adams, mission spirituality adviser at Church Mission Society, brings inspiration from Acts for challenging times.
Thankfully, long before us, others have wrestled with the needs of mission in challenging circumstances. The story of Paul and Silas in Macedonia and their imaginative approach to mission, told in Acts 16, may be a particular gift to us in these times.
Their Macedonian adventure begins with some obstacles.
They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; so, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas.Acts 16:6–8
Paul and Silas are forbidden from speaking the word in Asia. Then they are prevented from going into Bithynia. And it’s interesting that these obstacles are pictured as being of God’s making. Paul and Silas’s good intentions are, for some reason, not allowed to take place by the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus.
Obstacles as gifts?
Could it be that some of the obstacles we face are, if not at the instigation of God (although we cannot rule that out), at least utilised by God, to direct our attention to something else we are meant to be doing, or somewhere else we are called to be?
We tend, consciously or unconsciously, to turn things over in our minds at night. Perhaps Paul is no different. And in the night he receives a vision:
During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.Acts 16:9–10
Open to redirection?
Not there, over here, says the man, come over to Macedonia. Mission takes on a new and unplanned direction. Are we open to God’s redirection in the darkness of our unknowing?
So Paul and Silas change their plans and head for Macedonia.
We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days.Acts 16:11–12
They come to Philippi. And, we are told, remain there for some days.
Present, curious and alert
Could it be that our remaining in the place to which we are now called will be an act of mission imagination? Simply being present, curious and alert?
And after a few days of this remaining, Paul and Silas take a simple but imaginative step. They go to where people pray. And they make themselves at home there, talking about prayer with those who pray.
On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there.Acts 16:13
Seeking the place of prayer
What a principle for imaginative mission. Start by engaging with those who are already on the prayer journey. Their prayer may look very different from ours. We are not told if Paul and Silas prayed with the women they met, but I like to think so. And they clearly respected the women who they met there.
Where are the places of prayer in our context? The places where, in words or actions, people are opening themselves up to the possibility of divine encounter? This is a profoundly imaginative mission question.
Seeking the person of peace
As so often in the story of Christ’s mission, the transformation of a particular community begins to take shape in the life of one person. In Philippi this person of peace and prayer is Lydia. She appears to be the first person to be baptised across the Aegean sea in Europe. Her household follow her into baptism, and soon those bringing news of the hospitality of God become the ones receiving hospitality.
A certain woman named Lydia, a worshipper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptised, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.Acts 16:14–15
Shine like stars in the world
We don’t hear anything more about Lydia, but we know that the church of which she presumably was a founding member goes on to be a source of great joy to Paul, and to shine like stars in the world (Philippians 1:3, 2:15). Let us give thanks for Lydia, for Paul and for Silas, and for the church in Philippi – and, inspired by them, seek to follow Jesus the Christ with renewed imagination and devotion ourselves.