It is false to say that only Christians can experience God.
One of the most basic assumptions of the incarnational missionary is to assume God is already involved in every person’s life and is calling them to himself through his Son. Our mindset should not be the prevalent one of taking God with us wherever we might go. Instead, our mindset should be that we join God in His mission.
This means that the missionary God has been active a long time in a person’s life. Our primary job is to try to see where and how God has been working and to partner with him in bringing people to redemption in Jesus. Understanding that all humans are made in the image and likeness of God (Gen. 1:27) and in the deepest possible way made for God, we can assume every human is motivated by spirituality and search for meaning. Even idolatry indicates people are seeking to worship something beyond themselves. It is deformed spirituality to be sure, but it is spirituality nonetheless—and you can work with that. Recognize that behind many of the things not-yet-Christian people do lies a search for something else. C. S. Lewis once noted that all our vices are virtues gone wrong. If we take this as a clue, we can develop new missionary eyes to see what God is up to in people’s lives.
Let’s take a deeper look at this: Consider Las Vegas, the consummate sinner’s town. And it is that—a deeply broken place where people get really messed up. But we can put aside our moral misgivings and choose to look at the gambling dens with more missional eyes. We might ask, what is the person who is sitting at the slot machines really searching for? Perhaps it is the search for redemption but in the wrong place. It is the belief that to win the jackpot means to be changed and transformed into a new life. This search might also be driven by a now-pathological need to take risks because life has lost its sense of real adventure.
We can literally work our way through any type of event or activity in this way:
We can trust that because of the way God has designed us, in the end human beings are always searching (albeit in false and idolatrous ways) for real meaning, authentic relationships, to love, and to be loved in return.
One more dimension of this that must be mentioned is that all people have religious experiences. It is false to say only Christians can experience God. Anyone looking at a sunset can experience an in-breaking of God-awareness. In The Color Purple, Celia recalls a time as a child walking with her mother past a field of violets when she felt that God was making a pass at her in the flowers. God is constantly “making a pass” at us in everyday experiences—we simply need to become much more aware of Him. People call these experiences theophanies (God encounters), and our task as God’s sent people is to bring a meaningful interpretation to these experiences and point people to Jesus as the center of the God-experience.
Another way to look at this role of seeing “the virtue in the vice” is to conceive of ourselves in terms of one of our deepest identities as disciples—namely, the priesthood of all believers. In Untamed, Deb and I suggest that unlocking this is one of the most potent things we can do to allow God to work through all of His people. A priest is essentially someone who mediates the knowledge of God. Our priestly role, therefore, is to introduce people to Jesus and Jesus to people. After that as far as we can, our role is to make sure it is a right understanding of Jesus we are mediating, and then step out of the way—let Jesus do his thing with people. He knows exactly how to deal with them.
Let’s ask the Spirit to open our eyes to show us where He is at work all around us, and how He wants us to join Him in His mission.