At one point in his ministry, Paul was in Athens, and as he looked around the city he was worried about the idols.
Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. (Acts 17:16)
When the people heard about his message, they invited him to the Areopagus, a public debating group. There he stood up boldly and proclaimed the gospel – but in a way that was relevant to them.
So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you… Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, For we are indeed his offspring.” (Acts 17:22, 23, 27, 28)
The Athenians accommodated all gods. Anyone coming to the city with a new god, they were happy to put up an altar for them. These altars reminded everyone what their values were. Every town today has representations of its values: commercialism, materialism, having a good time out drinking, etc. We are in a very similar position today to what Paul faced.
Paul could have ignored it, but he found out about the society so he could contextualise the message.
There was once a man on holiday in the north-west of England. He floated on the sea in a little dinghy, just off the beach. The day was warm and sunny and he dozed off to sleep. The current pushed the boat further and further along the beach, but the man slept on. It was many hours later that he woke up when the dinghy grounded on the beach, and he found he didn’t recognise where he was at all. When he found someone to ask, he discovered he was in north Wales, and had drifted for many miles. He was just lucky the current didn’t drift him out to sea. In the same way, we can drift in society. Without realising it, we are being carried along by the tide of popular opinions and practices.
Jesus said we should be salt in society. Salt: when you’re cooking, you don’t leave it in the cupboard so it can do nothing, but you don’t flood the food with it. Salt needs to be used in just the right quantity to really make a difference to the flavour of a dish.
A Church can just open the doors and wait for people to come (nothing), or have a march or major event (flood). Neither works well. You need to know your community to know where the gospel will make a difference. If your church is not making a difference in the community what is it for?
Be intentionally different as God is different.
This is not just evangelism, it’s a way of life. As we engage with the culture intentionally we will leave transformation in our wake.
Two examples from my church:
There is a housegroup held in a sheltered housing complex. They decided to hold a Bible study that everyone could come to. Now, in the coffee lounge once a month, they hold First Friday – and have three regular attenders and several others who come occasionally. They are starting to make a difference.
An elderly couple who live on a static caravan park were inspired last Easter to knock on all sixty doors and tell the people ‘Jesus loves you at Easter and we are praying for you.’ Several issues were raised, so they started a community newsletter which has prompted conversations, offers of lifts and social events.
We need to not just challenge the culture but earn the respect of people.
By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. (John 13:35)
The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these. (Mark 12:31)
[based on a sermon by John Rogers at Pantygwydr Baptist Church]