Identifying the Marketplace
Jesus said, “Make disciples
of all nations” (Matthew 28:19).
Just another cliché? A new fad for a new century? Those of
us who have been around for a while are accustomed to cyclical change
in the workplace, accompanied by constant revision of business jargon
and corporate priorities. Catch-phrases such as “downsizing”,
“rightsizing”, “business process reengineering”,
“quality agenda” and “tipping points” come
and go. Popular today, the stuff of MBA programs, adopted by the
Western church (denominations are replete with jargon); effete and
old-school tomorrow. So, what’s new?
As older mainstream Christian name
brands in the West acknowledge they are losing a generation and can
barely reproduce themselves, sociologists warn that the world
Christian movement needs to have the capacity to carry forward an
engaged and vital form of faith. The heartland of the church needs
to move from ecclesiastical shackles and corporate logic that defend
traditionalism on sanctified ground for its own sake, and reach with
vision into the global supermarket of choices with a fresh message
that is transformational and relevant to “Everyman”. The
underlying message is the same, but the expression needs to be
readily understandable in the markets of humanity. Our missiologies
must incorporate both the green jungle and the concrete jungle, the
village path and Wall Street, even though the methods will be vastly
We need a Biblical theology of
“marketplace” and “ministry”. Without
clarifying terms and agreeing what we mean (let’s begin by
making sure we are all on the same page) we will dismiss it all as
“too theoretical, or fail to grasp what Father God sees and
wants to achieve through us.
What exactly is “the
In ancient Greece the market was
usually called the “agora”. The most famous agora was in
the heart of Athens. It was the focus of political, commercial,
administrative and social activity, the religious and cultural centre
and the seat of justice. My wife and I have walked through what’s
left the Athenian Agora, trying to visualize what it must have been
like when Greek culture and city states were considered the pinnacle
The Agora was the place in the centre
of town where people met, to buy and sell, talk, plot, gossip and
hear the latest news and views about what was going on in the world.
Traders coming from afar would set up their wares and coins and goods
would be exchanged for food, clothing, slaves and other lines of
merchandise. Luxury items would make their way into wealthier homes.
Men of influence and women of sophistication would sample exotic
cloths and food and purchase colourful ceramics from hitherto
unheard-of tribes and nations. From time to time a politician or
philosopher would wander by. A skilled debater would engage
oratorical combatants in the square and crowds would gather around to
hear him, more in the form of entertainment than serious intellectual
Others would listen spellbound as
story-tellers related colourful events from other times and remote
places. The Agora was where human intercourse occurred, where
different streams ideas and ethnic identities clashed or melted into
According to the United Nations,
roughly half the world’s population is now urbanized.
Economists and political think-tanks speak of the “global
village”. Today’s cities are agoras on historically
massive scales. Villages have been replaced by unprecedented
concentrations of population. The Industrial Revolution saw towns in
Europe explode into metropolises. Since the end of the Second World
War, the rest of the world has rushed to catch up; hundreds of
millions of people have left rural areas around the world and flocked
to burgeoning cities. We now talk about “megalopolises”,
agglomerations of people that run into tens of millions each,
sprawling cities like Mexico City, Shanghai, Sao Paolo, Istanbul,
Cairo and Tokyo, that are literally bursting at the seams.
Yet even in the largest urban centres
the concept of “the market” continues to flourish.
Family stores are replaced by Department stores and “hyperdomes”
(why have five check-outs when you can have eighty?), one-stop shops,
where traders can park their chariots and visit the village under the
one roof. (No more getting wet.) Visit any coffee shop, arcade,
grocery store aisle and you will still find people gathering in small
groups to talk about what is going on, to share news and views and be
entertained by the story-tellers (on LCD screens these days). Listen
to the music. Check out the goods and people from countries around
the new empires (now they are called retail “emporia”).
Crowds of bright people with the right connections enter offices and
factories, punch buttons on computers, make phone calls, exchange
money or code for goods from the other side of the world (taking
seconds, not months), write rules and talk to those in authority
(corporate, of course; political power is a distant second).
The contemporary market is still the
“place” (perhaps virtual) where goods and services are
bought and sold (or swapped); where deals are done and where those
who “have” advertise the fact and supply those who
“need”. Markets have their own vocabularies, styles,
priorities, cultures and pressures.
The modern “agora” is more
sophisticated than the ancient Greek model, but its underlying
purpose is similar. On-line sites are called “AgoraCart”,
“Agora Gallery”, “Agora software” and “Agora
Finances”. Everyone understands the concepts of market:
“market shares and securities”. “The market moved
upwards today”, “market forces”, the “job
market”; the “market meltdown”. We speak of the
metals market, or the knowledge market. People are transferable
commodities. Almost everything (physical or virtual) can be traded.
The rapid growth of the on-line trash and treasure site, e.Bay, the
world’s largest market, shows that there are buyers and sellers
for just about anything on the planet.
The Bible and the marketplace
Don’t let the speed and
dimension of change fool you. Whether swapping olives for cloth in
Ancient Greece or shares for cash on Wall Street, the marketplace has
always been the place to be. If we are to touch our generation for
Christ we need to understand our playing field.
Most of the influential men and women
in the Bible were marketplace operators. Among them were graziers,
administrators, soldiers, magistrates, fruit growers, musicians,
teachers, waiters, slaves and politicians. They were “in
touch” with what was going on and were able to influence their
Very few were trained prophets,
priests or theological masters, what we would today call
“professional” ministers. The notion of a secular-social
divide was implicit in ancient Israel, but the most effective people
were located in “the world” (that is, outside the
clergy); they had connections and credibility and were available to
serve God at the same time, driven by His sense of Divine purpose.
Jesus Christ understood the concept of
market implicitly. He spent very little time behind synagogue or
temple walls. That was for the Pharisees, Sadducees, and other
religious professionals. Not that their role wasn’t important.
It was, for they were the keepers of society’s rites and
religious values. The problem was that they went beyond their
authority. People today who dismiss those in full-time ministry fail
to realize the key place such professions have in explaining the
religious functions that are part of every society and breaking down
and declaring complex theological truth.
Most of Jesus’ time was spent in
the marketplace. Think about it. Where did He undertake most of his
teaching and ministry? On street corners, in shopping centres, in
open fields. Where did he heal? In private homes and along public
roads. Where did he meet those who became his band of disciples?
Beside a lake, in a public service outlet, in a dusty hamlet.
Did you know, for example, that 122 of
Jesus 132 public appearances were in workplace settings and that 45
of his parables were about work environments? Jesus used parables to
make people think. He talked about a farmer sowing seed, different
types of soil, weather forecasting, a farmer’s boy who left
home looking for a better life, investing with bankers, employing
workers, making bread, producing wine, wheat and weeds, helping
victims of violence, weddings, building on good and bad foundations,
valuing pearls, using the best wineskins, deploying armies at war,
dealing with debt, using fishing nets, constructing towers,
dispensing public justice, giving to the poor and managing employees.
All very practical. And yet, today, his lessons are often
restricted to church life situations and spiritualized out of their
original meaning for religious,
cultural, ethnic, and social reasons
Ordinary people recognized
superficially what Jesus was talking about, and they loved it. He
spoke their language. They did not necessary grasp the deeper
meaning; that came on another level. Jesus often sat in the market
and watched camels, goats, donkeys, slaves, soldiers and thieves
passing by. He listed to the cacophony of animals, hawkers, wedding
parties and musicians. He went to parties and sat in the smoke of
cooking fires, eating bread, cheese and olives, while talking about
the latest events over a mug of wine. He wasn’t artificially
different from the religious leaders. He just wasn’t one of
them. He was closer to the man and woman in the street than the
rulers who talked about God but interposed themselves and their rules
between Him and them.
Moving through the New Testament, did
you also know that nearly all
of the supernatural encounters recorded in the Book of Acts took
place in the marketplace, in homes, prisons, ships and in the street?
Christians and contemporary markets
What is your marketplace? It is where
you are. Think outside the box. In fact, let’s forget
thinking about boxes? There are no boxes.
Christians need to understand the
“marketplace” because this is where the vast majority of
people get together. If we are to reach our world, we need to take a
peak outside the doors of the church, past the shadow of the steeple,
to where men and women are born, live, breathe, learn, work, love and
die, many of them without once gracing the sanctuary.
As one Christian writer expressed it:
“Some people live within the
Of Church and Chapel bell
I’d rather build a rescue shop
Within a yard of Hell.”
So, let’s ask the question
again: what is your marketplace, as a Christian? Is it your Sunday
School Class or Bible Study group, where you spend one or two hours a
week? Hardly. The best hours of your life are spent where you live
and work (whether or not you are paid to do so). Outside of the
home, the majority of our relationships are with people in the
There is a cultural shift away from
the more traditional methods of worship and mission by people who,
through it all, remain deeply spiritually hungry and want a sense of
meaning in their lives. The fact that they don’t venture into
churches to satisfy their needs does not de-legitimize their search.
Your market can be an office, a
laboratory, hotel, class room, surgery, stage, PC screen, factory,
social group, club or living room, wherever you interact with people,
literally or virtually. Your marketplace can be in education,
commerce, industry, music, media, literature, communications, visual
arts, public administration, medicine, mental health, high finance,
defence, hospitality or international relations. If you are a parent
or carer, and you are looking after children at home, that is a
marketplace. The people in your market have distinctive
vocabularies, styles, priorities, cultures and pressures.
Because you understand your
marketplace (you are an integral part of it, after all) it is
arguable that you are the best person to live out the meaning and
message of the Gospel for those who inhabit that space. You are
uniquely positioned to impact their lives, as no one else can do.
How we live, as employees,
contractors, bosses, customers, traders, work associates, club
members, brokers or next-door neighbours reflects the values we
believe to be truly important. The testing ground is not the pew on
Sunday, but the workplace, the childcare centre or the home front,
where the unalloyed “us” is visible to all, friends and
I often feel that my performance is
way less than perfect, but life isn’t a performance, a show for
the sake of others. Jesus said that our lives demonstrate
irrefutably what is lurking on the inside. The real challenge is to
test the fruit and see where we need to change, to grow. Colleagues
in our particular marketplace often see into our souls more
effectively than fellow-Christians at church or our Bible study
group. It is hard to maintain a Sunday morning façade during
the week. That’s scary. It brings us back to earth on Monday
The moment we identify our particular
marketplaces we begin to realize why the random (scattergun) approach
to reaching people with the Gospel that is often pursued by
evangelical Christians (we all do it) yields unsatisfying results.
In highly individualistic societies,
people who do not know us are invariably less than open to what we
have to say to them about the state of their relationship with God.
They can be downright hostile and tell us to mind our own business.
Or they can put up walls and politely shut us out. We make a serious
mistake when we ignore closed doors and keep bashing against them,
trying to convince those locked inside that God loves them. We need
to re-think our approaches.
People are not
Friends once related to me how they
shared the Gospel with Kikuyu tribes-people in Kenya. “Witnessing
to Kenyans is easy. We put rubber bands around supplies of Gospel
tracts; we call these ‘Bible bombs’. We drive along the
road and, when we see a group of people sitting in a circle, talking,
we bomb ‘em”.
Are our marketplace colleagues just
targets, waiting like bulls’ eyes for the arrow to strike, or
like sitting ducks to be “bombed” by our words or
religious merchandise? Is being Christ’s witnesses a matter of
scorching the earth and moving on, looking for new targets to lock
onto, like a US “top gun” fighter pilot attacking a
Soviet MIG? The Great Commission is about “discipling”,
not just counting scalps.
The choices we
need to make, as Christians in predominantly non-Christian
marketplaces, have a lot to do with understanding our marketplaces in
the first place, and our roles in them; how we will interface with
people; how who we are will (or will not) gain credence for the
Gospel we believe; how we apply our theology of “work”
and how we deal with the dualism that artificially distinguishes
between vocation and calling. These choices will also reflect the
constraining contextual issues, such as dominant cultural values, the
kind of society in which we operate (say, Muslim or working class),
how people network and how we understand the practical pursuit of the
Great Commission. These are all issues that need to be unpacked and
addressed, if we are to make a difference. Let’s determine to