As leaders, when confronted with a problem, our instincts are to get a team together in a room, break out the whiteboard, and develop a plan of attack. Leaders fix problems. That’s what we do. Yet, may I suggest that in the Kingdom of God, we need to listen to a counterintuitive impulse? Consider context before strategy.
We see this impulse played out in our unhealthy imitation of another’s ministry. When we hear about a church that has gained traction in a ministry area and we try to replicate it, very often without similar results, we have fallen prey to putting strategy before context. Imitation may be the highest form of flattery but it’s an awful way to do ministry. I’d like to suggest that we be like the tribe of Issachar as described in 1 Chronicles 12:32 (NLT): “From the tribe of Issachar, there were 200 leaders of the tribe with their relatives. All these men understood the signs of the times and knew the best course for Israel to take” (NLT). They understood the signs of the times and knew what to do. They had what has been called contextual intelligence (QC). In their book, Contextual Intelligence, Len Sweet and Michael Beck define CQ as “the ability to accurately diagnose a context and make the correct decisions regarding what to do.”1 Take for example the choices Paul made in Athens. Until arriving there, Paul’s primary strategy of establishing missionary outposts for the Kingdom followed a simple formula. Acts 17:2 sets the scene: “As was his custom, Paul went into the synagogue” (NLT). Paul’s team would arrive in a city and Paul would find the local synagogue. Then they would appeal to “all things Jewish” by engaging in spiritual conversations about the Promised Messiah from the Old Testament. Some would reject his message. Some would be interested in more conversation while some were converted to faith in Christ. Paul was appealing to a “common ground” with his Jewish- and God-fearing Gentile friends. He would stay long enough in the city to raise up a leadership team, set them apart, and leave (or get run out of) town. Then Paul and his team would do it all over again in a new place. And his methodology worked for the most part.
But in Acts 17 something shifts in his strategy. Biblical scholar N. T. Wright has said that until Paul arrived in Athens, his major opponents in spreading the Gospel were zealous, often self-righteous Jews and the economic and political forces of mighty Rome. In Athens, Paul is in a culture where the prevailing worldviews centered around the ancient philosophies. Would what had worked in presenting the good news to Jews and Romans work for intellectual Greeks? A different culture would likely require a different approach. We see the shift in Acts 17:16-17: “While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there” (NIV).
Luke describes Paul as “greatly distressed” by the idols he saw. What does this mean? In the original Greek language, the tone is of someone who was troubled, perplexed, stirred, or agitated. This was not moral indignation but a deep heartbrokenness for the lost. We need to take a cue from Paul and say to God, in the words of the worship song “Hosanna,” “Break my heart for what breaks yours.” 2 Missiologist Deb Hirsch prophetically reminds the Church that "the heartbeat of the city is where the pain is.” 3 Paul’s heart was broken over the Athenians’ idolatry, and it became the very focus of his ministry among them.
As Luke’s biography continues, Paul gets invited to speak to the Aeropagus, a kind of city council where the city leaders and philosophers would gather for debates. The story continues: “Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: ‘People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you’” (Acts 17:22-23 NLT). The first thing Paul did was to walk around the city. He became a student of their culture. Paul models for us to do three simple things that everyday missionaries can do: look, listen, and learn! This is CQ.
In his letter to the Church in Corinth, Paul describes his contextually intelligent strategy this way: “To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings” (1 Corinthians 9:22-23 NIV).
For those of us who are followers of Jesus in the Wesleyan stream like myself, this is our rich heritage. After having his heart warmed at Aldersgate in April 1738 and his Pentecostal experience at Fedder Lane on January 1, 1739, John Wesley was invited to hear the great evangelist, George Whitfield, preach in the fields. He described that day in his journal “Saturday, (March) 31. In the evening I reached Bristol and met Mr. Whitefield there. I could scarcely reconcile myself at first to this strange way of preaching in the fields, of which he set me an example on Sunday; I had been all my life (till very lately) so tenacious of every point relating to decency and order that I should have thought the saving of souls almost a sin if it had not been done in a church.”4
Two days later, Wesley writes: “Monday, (April) 2.—At four in the afternoon, I submitted to be more vile and proclaimed in the highways the glad tidings of salvation, speaking from a little eminence in a ground adjoining to the city to about three thousand people.” The context of England in the 1700s demanded a new strategy (field preaching) that emerged from Wesley’s keen understanding that the Church of England was ill-equipped to reach the masses on the British Isles by expecting them to worship in the cathedrals and chapels spread throughout the land. May God grant you the same understanding in your ministry.
1. Len Sweet and Michael Beck, Contextual Intelligence, 2021.
2. Hillsong United, Hosanna, Hillsong Music Australia, 2007.
3. Deb Hirsch, Missio Ecclesia Conference; Grace Church, Cape Coral, FL; Feb. 18, 2007.
4. The Journal of John Wesley; Saturday 31 March, 1739.