Searching Out: Getting to know the context and culture

I love the first afternoon and evening of a holiday. One of the first things we’ve done after we’ve found where we’ve staying, had a cuppa and unpacked is go out for a walk and start to explore the area on foot. It doesn’t matter if it’s New York, Paris or Cornwall. Walking around you get a feel for the area, you get to see where some of the sites of interest are and you also find out useful things like where the shops are.  Getting a feel for the place is useful whether you are planning to be somewhere for a fortnight or twenty years.  

As we saw earlier, the “searching out” step is all about putting contextualisation into practice. If we are going to reach urban communities with the Gospels, then we need to understand and engage with the culture. Contextualisation is about doing that, observing and understanding people and communities so that the Word of God is applied to their specific situation.  As Bavinck explains: The missionary

“as soon as he sets foot in the place where he is going to work, he must face the question as to how he should approach the people. How must he win their confidence? How can he understand their inner life?” [1]

Searching out is therefore all about recognising the genuine and legitimate hopes, dreams and values of people without acquiescing to sinful and idolatrous aspects of culture. Therefore, this stage in the process also aligns with the concept of posessio because as we saw earlier, it is not about accommodating false beliefs. [2]

A Biblical Theology of Searching Out

I think there’s something of this in Genesis 12:4-9. Abram has been told to go to the Land God has given him and promised that he will be blessed. Obediently he heads towards Canaan but he doesn’t immediately settle in one place, travelling north to South, he passed through the land, stopping at different points, pitching his tent and building altars. He is doing two things. First of all, he is getting a feel for the terrain and secondly, he is symbolically expressing his trust in God’s promise. There is a prophetic dimension to his actions.[3]

Before the Israelites are about to go into the Land after the Exodus, Moses, and later Joshua send out spies to search out the land.[4] The purpose of their expedition is to bring back a report on the state of affairs, are the people numerous or few? Are they weak or strong? Are they living in fortified strongholds? Is the land good? They are told not just to report but to bring back evidence, a sample of fruit from the land.[5] What they see produces different responses. Two spies are encouraged by what they see, they call on the people to go and take the land, God has given it to them. The other 10 however focus on the strength of the inhabitants and the people are discouraged.[6]

It is worth noting as we read that account that it was God who had instructed Moses to send in the spies, observing and reporting was not rebellion against him. At the same time, they were not reporting back on anything God didn’t know. He knew the lie of the land before they arrived. Yet, God’s purpose was for them to see the goodness of the land and to be encouraged to go up and possess it. At the same time, they were meant to see the strength of the people too, not so that they would be disheartened but so that they would know that they must depend upon God for victory. The difference between the ten spies and the two spies was not that one group overestimated the strength of the enemy or played down the prosperity of the land and the other group over played the goodness of Canaan and were naïve about the strength of the enemy. Rather, the 2 displayed a greater faith in God’s strength to overcome powerful enemies and fulfil his promises.

In Acts 17, Paul arrives in Athens. What does he do when he gets there? The answer, once again is that he starts to explore. He visits the sites. However, he is not taken in by the beauty of the city like some wide-eyed tourist. Instead, he sees the idolatry of the city. It is a city that is submerged in idols. [7]

Notice that when Paul starts to preach in Athens and to speak at Mars Hill, that everything he says is informed by what he has seen.  Peterson observes:

“The external impulse for Paul’s speech was the specific context in Athens and the challenge of Greek thought and practice more generally. Luke makes it clear that Paul’s response to idolatry and the ignorance of pagan worship was to proclaim Jesus and the resurrection in the marketplace to anyone who happened to be there (17:16-18).”[8]

Secondly, we can see that Paul’s observations enable him to speak specifically to the hearts of his audience. His observations tell him that the people of Athens are both at the same time unique in terms of their specific culture, philosophy and idolatry as well as similar to all people everywhere in their ignorance of and opposition to the one true God.

“In responding to this request, Paul had to deal with an audience that was more educated and cultured than the one addressed in Lystra, and yet some of the issues were the same. Knowledge and ignorance are distinctive themes here (vv. 19, 20, 23, 30), but false views about God and the way to worship him are common to both contexts.”[9]

Finally, we see that Paul’s response to the idolatry is anger. [10]  In fact, the verb Luke uses to describe Paul’s anger “is used of God’s anger at idolatry (Is 65:3; Hos 8:5).”[11] This “searching out” stage is no ordinary fact finding mission. We are meant to see the context we are entering through God’s eyes.

The 12 spies were meant to see that God’s word was true, they were about to enter a land which really did flow with milk and honey. They were also meant to see that there was a powerful and numerous enemy. They should have also seen the idolatry of the people in the land. The result then would have been that they saw the land through God’s eyes. The result should have been a greater trust in God both because they knew God could keep his promises but also because they needed to trust him both because they risked defeat at the hand of a deadly enemy and because they risked being led astray into idolatry by the numerous inhabitants of the land.

Searching out -first steps

Stepping into a new culture will first involve the need for us to search out where we have been sent to by God.  This is true whether we have been sent across continents to Africa or Asia. It is true f we have moved from a middle class suburb to an inner city community or working class council estate.  It is also true, as I will explain later if “sending” means that we have been commissioned for Gospel service in our own indigenous community.

How do we go about it?  Well, when Sarah and I were first looking to come to Bearwood, we started by looking at the maps.  As it turns out, it was a good job that we did.  We had ignored the advert to come and work at a church in Bearwood 5 kilometres from Birmingham at first because we imagined a little village out in the country, several miles from the Birmingham boundary. When we looked a bit more closely we discovered that Bearwood was right at the heart of the West Midlands conurbation. To be sure, we were 5 km from the centre of Birmingham but that did not place us miles from urban life, but rather slap bang in the middle of it.

The second thing we started to do was to get to know the area by exploring, just like we do on holiday. There are lots of ways to get to know the West Midlands. I recommend that new comers take a trip on the Number 11 bus which follows the city orbital or take a tram ride across the conurbation passing through the different types of community. Visits to the Black Country Living Museum, Birmingham Museum and Gallaries and Dudley Castle and Zoo will give you an insight into the history and culture of the area. A walk along the Soho Road is a culture experience of vivid colours, temples and gurdwaras, clothes shops, an orchestra of languages and places to stop and eat food from all around the World.

As I mentioned, the internet is a great place to start as you begin to search out an area.  Wikipedia tells me that “The world’s oldest working engine, made by Boulton and Watt, the Smethwick Engine, originally stood near Bridge Street, Smethwick.”[12] I can also discover that “Council housing began in Smethwick after 1920 on land previously belonging to the Downing family, whose family home became Holly Lodge High School for Girls in 1922. The mass council house building of the 1920s and 1930s also involved Smethwick’s boundaries being extended into part of neighbouring Oldbury in 1928”. [13]  I will also find out that notable residents have included the actress Julie Walters, not a bad claim to fame.

Data from the 2011 census is available from the Nomos website. This provides lots of useful information about population, class, economics, ethnicity and religion.[14] Smethwick, where our church is located has a population of 48,565 of whom only 37.6% are white British with 15.7% coming from an Indian background,  12.4% Pakistani, 11.3% Black Afro-Caribbean and 4.4 % African.  Meanwhile in terms of religious affiliation 21.8% identify as Muslim and 15.7% as Sikh.  The median age in Smethwick is 32 and the mean age 34 indicating a fairly young population with 27.4% under the age of 18. Unemployment stands at 8.3%. Remember that this data is across the whole of the town and the statistics will vary from ward to ward.  However, for comparison in Hempstead and Wigmore which is a suburban and semi-rural part of Kent 88.8% of the population are white, the median age is 43, only 2.1% identify as Muslim and unemployment is 2.3%.[15]

Already, we are beginning to learn things that will be important for urban cross-cultural mission. For example, at a very basic level, whilst it is essential to know something of the local history, in our case particularly about the birth of the Industrial Revolution in the Black Country, will also want to pay close attention to other histories as well. 62% of the local population trace their history and heritage outside of the UK.

Museum visits, bus journeys and internet resources will only get you so far. I’m a strong advocate of getting out and getting to meet people. Two brilliant ways of doing this are door to door work and street contact. Door to Door has been given a bad press in recent times and yet if you are going to meet people who don’t know Christians then there are not many better ways. These points of contact, especially in the early days are not simply opportunities to get a quick gospel message in and certainly not the time to get into debate about religious issues. What they do offer is an opportunity to start making 1-1, personal contact with people.  This is where you start to find out what individual neighbourhoods are like and what makes individual people tick.  Whether through a formal survey or informal questions in conversation you get to find things out about the, how long they’ve lived in the area, what they enjoy doing, whether they’ve had previous contact with church. People disclose their fears whether its of intruders and loss of privacy (just by a simply message in the door window) or of aloneness, illness and death.  This is where you find out whether or not the census data is up to date (for example, I expect some of our neighbourhoods to have changed significantly since the 2011 census and others less so).   And it’s where you begind to find out what they believe and value, not just what text books about their religion, ethnicity, age or class tell you they will believe or value.

Seeing as God Sees

Earlier when talking about Paul in Athens learning to see the city through God’s eyes and the spies in Canaan being able to see the land as The Lord saw it, I mentioned that the stepping in exercise is useful not just for cross cultural missionaries moving into an area but also for indigenous gospel workers too.

Here are three reasons why. First of all, because we can assume that we know an area because we have always lived there and grown up there and yet not know it as well as we think we do.  For example, do we really know our own history. There’s lots that I’ve discovered over the years about my own home city through reading up and visiting museums, just as I was dependent on a 2nd cousin doing some family tree research to learn about my own roots in the London Italian community. Then there are other factors, I may consider myself indigenous based on class and miss subtle but important differences. Don’t assume that because you are a working class person who grew up on a London Council estate that you will fully get what it means to be a working class lad growing up on an estate in Derby and vice versa.

Secondly, it is useful for all of us to go through this exercise because becoming a Christian changes our cultural perspectives. We may think we may belong but actually, we will be viewed differently, even with as much suspicion as an outsider and because we will view the world around us differently.  This leads to the third point.

This is not just a sociological exercise, it is a theological exercise. Our primary aim when searching out is to see our mission field through God’s eyes. He doesn’t see estates that need re-generation, slums that need demolishing, gangs that need bringing under the law or immigrants who need language lessons. He sees individual people, made in his image but fallen because of sin who need the Gospel. This means that the searching out exercise is as much an exercise in prayer and worship as anything. Take time as you explore and research to give thanks to God for creating this part of his world. Pause to mourn the evidence of sin and the fall all around you. Get down on your knees and pray for the people you will be ministering to that they will find peace, forgiveness and hope in Christ.


[1] Bavinck, The Science of Missions, 88.

[2] Bavinck, The Science of Missions, 178.

[3] Gordon Wenham, Genesis  1-15 (WBC 1. Word, 1987), 283.

[4] See Numbers 13 and Joshua 2.

[5] Numbers 13:17-20.

[6] Numbers 13:25-33.

[7] Peterson, Acts, 487.

[8] David G Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles (The Pillar New Testament Commentary. Nottingham: Apollos, 2009)487.

[9] Peterson, Acts, 487.

[10] Block, Acts, 560.

[11] Block, Acts, 560.

[12] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smethwick -accessed 07/08/2018

[13] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smethwick -accessed 07/08/2018

[14] https://www.nomisweb.co.uk/

[15] https://www.nomisweb.co.uk/reports/localarea?compare=1119884093

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