Putting Your City in Its Place

Putting Your City in Its Place

A few years ago, before starting a routine read through the Book of Acts, I picked up a green colored pencil to highlight every mention of cities and regions I might come across. Each occurrence of a geographical name was to be softly shaded. Beginning with “Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria” (Acts 1:8) to “Cyprus and Cyrene” (Acts 11:20) to Seleucia, Perga, Lystra, Attalia, Neapolis, and so forth, whole pages became sprinkled with green. The highlighting forced me to pay attention to names that I commonly overlooked, names that were, of course, ancillary to the book’s message. Or so I thought.

One of the basics of good reading is to understand that repetition signifies importance. But interesting enough, the importance of location had never caught on for me in the Book of Acts, even though it’s everywhere.

Place Matters

Maybe it was because Luke only cites a few cities twice, or maybe because I dismissed the geography as something expected in a historical narrative, but either way, the frequency of location didn’t stand out to me until I saw the green. That’s when it became clear: Luke cares about these places.

Once you keep your eyes peeled for it, the centrality of location becomes hard to miss in this story about the gospel’s advance. Every turned page means more discoveries, sometimes even dozens, of the church expanding into new pockets, crossing new borders, turning the world upside down, one locale at a time.

The advance of the gospel in these places is why geography is important to Luke. Each mention of a city or region is telling us how far the gospel has gone, how far it can go. Its advance, after all, is a real advance. The gospel isn’t an ideological movement for abstract, amorphous peoples; it’s the good news proclaimed to people who are surrounded by the concreteness of somewhere, some place. The where-ness of it all matters in the Book of Acts, and it matters for the mission of the church.

And we should be careful that this doesn’t get overlooked.

Ethne Who Are En

One of the biggest contributions to the modern missions movement occurred in 1974 when Ralph Winter pointed out the “people blindness” that characterized Western missionary strategies. Addressing the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization, Winter explained that the distinctions of unreached peoples based on political and territorial borders were insufficient. The real barriers to the gospel, he explained, were cultural and linguistic, not geographic. John Piper says, “Winter’s message was a powerful call for the church of Christ to reorient its thinking so that missions would be seen as the task of evangelizing unreached peoples, not the task of merely evangelizing more territories” (Let the Nations Be Glad, 180).

This recovery of ethnē (Greek for nations) as “people groups,” not World Cup countries, has made a tremendous impact on missionary efforts, giving the church a clear picture of what’s left to accomplish the Great Commission. And at the same time, while ethnē refers to ethnolinguistic peoples, we should not forget that these peoples are always ethnē who are also en (Greek for in) somewhere. The ethnē are always peoples in a certain place, whether indigenous lands or foreign cities. If we were to lose sight of the ethnē en, of the real flesh and blood in real contexts behind the ethnolinguistic graphs, then it could distort our strategies to prioritize translation over going, to be more about shipping books than crossing borders, even though we actually need both.

Perhaps worst is that a shriveled sense of locale might lead us to abstract lostness, to make it all math, all about numbers and percentages, which, when coupled with globalization, could truncate our efforts to become a mere transmission of information to faceless blocks of the world population. This could happen — if we lose touch with the tangibility of our mission. It turns out, even if by a different form, we might not be immune to “people blindness.”

The Here-ness of Humanity

We must remember that people are always people in a place — a place, as one author says, is “not just any place, not just a location marked on a road map, but on a topo, a topographic map — with named mountains and rivers, identified wildflowers and forests, elevation above sea level and annual rainfall” (Peterson, The Pastor, 7). The point is the “here-ness” of humanity — that we understand the actual, material, physical existence of the people Jesus commissions us to reach.

People are always in a place, and therefore, our mission must mean, at some point, that one of us steps into that place. For how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how will they hear unless someone goes to these ethnolinguistic peoples where they are, where they live, with rolled-up sleeves and dusty feet, to preach the gospel — just like it happened in the Book of Acts, in Seleucia, Perga, Lystra, Attalia, Neapolis, and more.

Our mission is a tangible one. Be going, Jesus says — somewhere, some place — and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:18–20). And therefore, sooner or later, we must ask, “What where? What place?” If we’re commissioned to make disciples of all nations, where in the world, literally, do we start?

Limitation and Responsibility

This brings us to two complementing factors of our mission that we’re prone to overlook. It’s what authors Sparks, Soerens, and Friesen call “limitation and responsibility” — two realities that serve as anchors to our mission and help to clarify our focus.

On the one hand, limitation reminds us that one local church, or person, can’t reach everyone alone. There are limits to our particular abilities to make disciples of all nations because we are rooted in one place at a time. And the place in which we’re rooted happens to be wherever we are right now, or where God is sending us. Whether it is a neighborhood in the upper Midwest or a village in the hills of southeast Asia, the fact that we are somewhere — not everywhere — means that there are limits to our disciplemaking. If we choose to live, say, in Baghdad, we are effectively saying that Baghdad is the ground of our ministry, not Boston. There might be furloughs and travels, but we can only live one place at a time, and that place draws lines on what we’re able to do.

On the other hand, though, the lines drawn also add a responsibility on what we should do. Limitation reminds us that we can’t reach everyone, but responsibility reminds us that we should reach someone. And that someone, if we’re wondering, is most likely the person who lives and works nearby — even if that person is not an urban professional born after 1970. Responsibility leads us to take a step back and consider that God’s providence might determine more than our spouses and careers, that it might actually have something to do with the people who live, work, and recreate around us, with the place we call home, with those who need to hear us tell them about Jesus.

Here or There for Somebody

This is because place matters. And when we recover its importance, it will only boost our mission, not hinder it.

When we know that place matters, that all nations live on the ground somewhere, it keeps us from the nebulous goal of trying to reach everybody on our own, and most importantly, it hones our focus on reaching somebody. Whether that is in the northeast of America or among a tribe in West Africa, we are here or sending there, trying to reach somebody, until the day when somebody becomes everybody, and the whole earth is filled with those green highlights.


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Jonathan Parnell (@jonathanparnell) is a writer and content strategist at Desiring God, and is the lead planter of Cities Church in Minneapolis–Saint Paul, where he lives with his wife, Melissa, and their four children. He is also the co-author of How to Stay Christian in Seminary.