What Makes An Educated Missionary?

evangelism short-term missions
A Picture of the Areopagus with the Words

Shelby Watkins is ATAP's Student Research Assistant. She graduated from Gardner-Webb University with a degree in Missiology.

Oftentimes, when we hear the words “education” and “ministry” together, we think that you must have a bachelor's degree or even a master's degree to serve the church.

In reality, God doesn’t often pick the most schooled or learned person in the room. Acts 4:13 proves this for even the disciples: they weren’t educated men but ordinary men. Most of the disciples were in some type of job or trade when we see Jesus call them, not in school for discipleship.

Paul similarly continued to have a day job and work to provide for his vocational ministry as we read in 2 Thess 3:8. 

So, this brings good news to the layperson whose day job seems to fall short of a “ministry profession.” It also, however, brings a challenge to those who want to honor God through His commands to love God, love others, and share the Gospel.

How can we, who are not in a pastorate or working as a full-time missionary, share the love of God to the best of our ability? How can we be “educated missionaries” in our jobs, communities, and schools without ever receiving a formal education?

Paul shows us exactly how to do this in his trip to Athens recorded in Acts 17:16-34. Through his sermon, he gives us key principles to follow so that we can share the Gospel in our daily lives no matter our circumstances, position, or level of experience.


Be Aware of What You Don’t Believe

In verse 16 it says, “he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.” Paul knew exactly what he didn’t believe in.

In his writings, we see that Paul had a clear stance on the culture and its norms. He knew what was against truth, and what was condemned by God, and he didn’t accept it no matter how prevalent it was.

Do we know where idols are present in our mainstream culture? Do we recognize the practices of witchcraft, voodoo, ancestor worship, and idolatry present in the media we consume every day?

Christians, we often know Bible stories well, but can’t recognize the idolatrous and dark beliefs and practices surrounding our everyday lives. 

Examples of this are actually present in a lot of Disney movies. Disney does a good job at properly depicting religious practices, both Christian and non-Christian. Mulan depicts ancient Chinese religious worship and The Princess and The Frog depicts voodoo practice in New Orleans. Keeping our eyes peeled on what the world and culture are trying to show us is important as we endeavor to live set-apart, discerning lives.

The moral of the story is this: know what you don’t believe. This involves knowing God’s heart, recognizing what the Bible condemns, and being open to having your heart change toward what you participate in, watch, and believe.


Know What You Do Believe

Paul's response in 17-20 is simple: he shared what he knew. Paul deeply understood what he did believe in order to reason with what he didn’t believe. 

Paul knew what he didn’t believe in (the idolatrous practices of Athens), but he also knew well the life-saving power of Jesus and the story of the cross and the resurrection.

Paul knew what he believed, and he knew how to share it. This knowledge didn’t come from school, but it did come from sitting at the feet of Jesus and encountering Him.

Knowing what we believe comes from simply being a student of the Word. Both being discipled and discipling others grow us so that we can comprehend and explain the truth of God. Then, we share it.

Sharing the Gospel doesn’t happen if we don’t really know what we believe. A quote attributed to Einstein says, “if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” Likewise, if we don’t understand what Jesus did and how our lives are changed, we might struggle to communicate the basics of the Gospel. 


Be A Constant Learner

Those two points are the most important place to start in order to be an educated missionary. Knowing what we do and don’t believe is important so that we don’t get drawn away by the world when we’re met with hard questions and adverse religious practices. 

But learning how to share the Gospel doesn’t ever stop. We can always be better evangelists, more knowledgeable Christians, and have stronger faith. This means that we have to be constant learners of both the truth and of the world around us.

Constantly learning means that we are humble. There is never a moment when we know all that we need to evangelize to a certain people group. Nor is there ever a moment when we fully understand who God is and what he is doing.

What makes a missionary a constant learner? Verses 22-23 say, “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.”

Paul might not know the ins and outs of the religious experience in Athens, but he is observant. 

His message begins by noticing the idolatry present in Athens, and because of his already present understanding of God and idolatry, he can build his message based on that. 

Being observant means being watchful, asking questions, and genuinely loving people/wanting to understand them to share the truth. 

Our goal in education is not to love the world. That is to say, we should not learn about other beliefs or practices to adapt them to our beliefs; rather, we should learn in order to understand and relate the Gospel to others in their own context and worldview.



Finally, our Gospel presentations should encompass this all. Paul’s sermon in Athens was not the same as his other sermons or teachings because it wasn’t meant for another group of people. Paul’s sermon was for those caught in idolatry, believing in carved images and philosophy.

He adapts his sermon in verse 28, “As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’” In this sermon, Paul takes what he knows about their culture and beliefs and points it back to the cross and God’s ultimate story for humanity. 

Adapting is not changing the Gospel, but it is teaching in a way for others to understand. The truth about God can be explained in a multitude of ways because the Gospel applies to every single culture and every single person. 

To adapt is to have compassion. To adapt is to meet people where they are at and to build relationships with them. It is vital to our missions in the workplace or across the country that we learn to adapt and come to people with humble and compassionate hearts filled with the joy and truth of the Gospel.

Overall, in order to be educated missionaries, we must submit to the knowledge and power of the Holy Spirit. God is our guide, our provider for words to speak, and our source of godly compassion and holy fruit. Submitting to God means that we are humble, knowing we have room to grow and pushing in faith toward sanctification in holiness and knowledge. 

Being an educated missionary means that in daily life, we’re opening ourselves up to opportunities for the Lord to work through us. It is about choosing to love the Lord with our minds so that we can also love him with our heart, soul, and strength.

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