The Athenian Balance of Evangelism

The apostle Paul preaching in the Areopagus in Athens, Greece (Acts 17:16-34)”God is pushing us as His people outside the walls of our building.” Have you heard preachers say that?  I bet if you were to go back to the sermon recording of most of your pastors (myself included), say this.  But let’s be clear–we spend the majority of our time outside the walls of this building.  It’s not that God’s pushing us out, He’s pulling us forward to make a difference in the place we spend the most time.

Generations ago, when new settlers built towns, they built them in a way that resembled a square.  They would have a square that is an open public space that’s used for gatherings of various sorts.  This square is surrounded by small shops, with a fountain in the middle.

It’s with this in mind that I approach this sermon with this particular shape.  The first point is that of Christ, the second of us and our relationship to Christ.  The third point dealt with our connection to Christ and the church.  But there’s more.  Much more.  It’s the intended command of Christ for us to connect with our community and our culture—that’s the fourth point that makes this square—the public square.

Local churches develop cultures in how they interact with the culture.  Reinhold Niebuhr wrote  a book a few decades ago called Christ and Culture.  In this book, he outlines ways that the church views Christ’s influence and interaction with the non-believing culture.

So many conversations about how Christians are to interact with the culture.  Should we turn into a fortress to keep ourselves and the culture completely separate, and nary the twain shall meet?  Should we engage the culture in such a way that we look almost exactly like it (assimilation)?  What should we do?  What’s the balance?

Whether we realize it or not, each of us has made our choice as to how we will interact in the public square of people and ideas.  We must certainly identify where we are in this so we know how to move forward.  The best way to do this is to shine the light on where we are, look at ourselves in the mirror and see reality, then move forward to God’s aim for us.

Before hitting these three, please take time to read Acts 17:16-34 (that’s ok–I’ll wait!).  Paul displays three needed mindsets in evangelism.

Provocation (Acts 17:16-17):  His spirit was provoked by the idols in Athens.  This word used for ‘provoked’ is the same word form used when Paul and Barnabas had a “sharp disagreement” over whether to take John Mark on the second missionary journey (Acts 15:39).  Does the idolatry of our nation and other nations provoke our spirits, that they are trusting in a substitute for the real, living God?

Compassion (Acts 17:18-23):  He acknowledged their spirituality.  Paul did not blast the people of Athens.  He did not say, “You rotten, blasphemous idolaters–you’re going to hell!”  Although this is true for all of us outside of Christ, that doesn’t mean you come in with both barrels locked and loaded.  You take Ephesians 4:15 out of the garage and take it on the highway: “… speaking the truth in love.”  You interact with aspects of the culture in order to connect them to the truth of that which transcends every culture.  Do we truly have a compassion for people, or are we ready to fire away because we’re right and their sinners?  Do we realize that, as Christians, God’s grace in rescuing us from the law cleanses us from sin?  

Conviction (Acts 17:24-31):  He still addressed their need for an exclusive gospel of our crucified and resurrected Christ. God was patient with our ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.  Why?  A day of reckoning is approaching.  No, that may not sound politically correct, but it is biblically and historically correct–that is, Paul tells the people what will happen in history.  Does our compassion for people give us a reason to pull back on our convictions in order to please people?  Our compassion for people should propel us to share the truth with people in a winsome way that’s firm in the faith.

May God increase each of these in us!

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