Jimmy Kimmel recently surveyed average Americans on their knowledge of geography. Each person stood in front of a world map, was given a pointer, and asked this question: “Can you name a country on the map?” The responses—or lack thereof—were both hilarious and horrifying.
After some mumbling, blank stares, and nervous laughter, the most common response was “Africa.” Since Africa is a continent and not a country, the answers only went downhill from there. Thankfully, at the end, a young kid saved the day by rattling off multiple countries across the world.
How would you do if you were stopped on the street and asked to identify countries on a world map? My fear is that many of us would do about as well as those surveyed by Kimmel. After all, geography is just about maps, globes, and land formations, right?
For me, geography is more than the boring study of the world. It is a window into people and places. When I was younger, my interest in the world was initially piqued as I participated in Royal Ambassadors. Regularly, my friends and I heard from a missionary who served in some far corner of the planet.
As these missionaries told stories of their country, people, and ministry, my mind would ignite with the possibility of visiting there one day. Later, my studies in geography only cemented my love for the places in the world and the people who lived there. Now, I might be an outlier when it comes to a love for geography, but I believe Christians should have a decent grasp on geography for the following three reasons.
1. Awareness Promotes Prayer
Many of my missions students still have nightmares about the map test I proctor most semesters. On this test, students are expected to know the countries and capitals of the world. Yes, the entire world. Why would I give a geography exam in a missions class? I firmly believe it is difficult to care about the world when we know very little about it.
“I have found that by simply learning the names and locations of these countries and capitals, students are more attentive to the world around them.”
I have found that by simply learning the names and locations of these countries and capitals, students are more attentive to the world around them. When students hear or scroll past news about world events, they are more interested because they recognize where these events are taking place. These faraway people and places are no longer white noise in the background but become concrete realities.
This piqued interest makes students more apt to pray because their map is larger than their own community or nation. Loving the nations means we care about where these nations actually are located on a map.
Geography helps us pray specifically about places and world events.
2. Prayer Leads to Advocacy
The Great Commission is large in scope, and for many Christians, this grandness can be daunting. Engaging the nations seems overwhelming. Geography helps us move beyond global borders and allows us to see the human contours of the world.
William Carey, whom many consider the father of the modern missions movement, was struck by the need for the gospel around the world as he considered both the Bible and geography. In a recent blog post, Nathan Finn wrote of Carey: “He was a voracious reader who became very interested in literature about foreign lands, especially Captain James Cook’s journals of his travels. This curiosity about other lands slowly became a spiritual concern for the salvation of foreign peoples. Carey increasingly mentioned unevangelized nations in his sermons and wept when he discussed those with little access to the gospel.”
There are currently more than seven billion people around the globe, many of whom have never heard the gospel. The greatest need for all of these people is the good news about Jesus Christ. They live in every conceivable place and context. We must advocate for the gospel to go to all peoples, no matter their background or current context.
Geography helps us connect the Great Commission to real people in real places around the world.
3. Advocacy Pushes Engagement
Geography helps give your people a new lens through which to see both the world and their changing communities. But awareness that ends only with advocacy is hollow. As a follower of Christ, involvement in the Great Commission is nonnegotiable. We are all called to be engaged in evangelism and discipleship. The questions for us to answer, then, are, “How will we be involved in the Great Commission?” and “Where in the world will we be involved?”
As the church, the answer to those questions may mean choosing a people or place around the world where your church can partner for the foreseeable future through sending short-term teams and/or long-term missionaries.
“Awareness and advocacy are healthy when they engender actual engagement.”
Additionally, there are five-hundred-plus unreached peoples in the United States and Canada. In their home countries, these groups of people have insufficient access to the gospel. But, in many of your communities, people from these groups are moving in next door. What an incredible gospel opportunity to engage in the Great Commission. Awareness and advocacy are healthy when they engender actual engagement.
Geography highlights for us potential places around the world where we can be actively involved in the Great Commission.
Geography helps us have a God-sized vision of our world and our neighbors, from wherever they come. I believe participating in missions ties together the Great Commandment and the Great Commission. It fulfills Scripture’s command to love God and love people by sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. Missions is not just another activity of the church—it is who we are as believers and as the church. It is part of our identity.
I have a fascination with globes and maps. For me, these things are more than just accent pieces in my home. Globes and maps represent people, places, and opportunities for all of us to live out the Great Commission in an informed and meaningful way.
Dr. Greg Mathias is an assistant professor of global studies and associate director of the Center for Great Commission Studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Follow him on Twitter @GregMathias.