**This is the manuscript from my sermon/lesson/seminar that I gave at my church last night. It was a bit heavy on the details, so a few people asked me to post it on the blog today. I’ve not edited it any, so it’s a bit long, but if you want to get the crux of it, just skip to the positive signs from our current culture. There is a lot to be hopeful for in the years to come.
I could spend a ton of time just dissecting this passage – it’s one of the favorites of Christian apologists everywhere – but I want to focus on a few key elements that I believe are applicable to Christianity today.
First of all, we read that Paul, while waiting for his compatriots, was in the marketplace in Athens. He wasn’t cloistered away from the world; he was moving around the city, looking, learning, listening. And what he saw provoked his spirit within him. Here’s what we should take away from this: we need to be aware of what’s going on in the world. Current events on the local, national, and global scale. We need to not just hear from the pulpit that the times, they are a changing; we need to be the eyes and ears on the ground informing the pulpit of what’s going on in our communities.
Take a moment and think: what are some of the changes that you’ve observed about your community? What are some of the changes you’ve observed about the USA? The world?
We need to be awake and aware of what’s going on around us, from the kids on our ball team to the soldiers in Afghanistan. And then we need to let what we see/hear/ observe provoke (stir, ignite) our spirits to act in the name of Christ.
Second, we read that Paul reasoned with the devout Jews and the philosophers. Reasoned means that Paul had thorough discussions with them; he engaged them on topics (and, knowing Paul, it was probably a wide range of topics) and discussed them from both the Christian and non-Christian angles. Remember – Paul wasn’t always a believer in Christ. He had knowledge and understanding of things beyond the church, and he applied that knowledge when he spoke with people.
But Paul always brought the conversation back to the Gospel. There wasn’t a topic that Paul couldn’t steer back to Jesus. Not in a non-sequitur way, where he just stopped talking about a topic and started talking about Christ, but in a way that showed the fullness of Paul’s faith: everything under the sun can be brought around to God because everything under the sun was made by God. There is a connection between life and faith that is powerful, if we will reveal it to those who can’t see it.
Finally, Paul was in tune with the cultural expressions of his day. He knew the Greek poets (Epimenides [v.28a] and Aratus [v. 28c]) and used them in his message about the Gospel. He was aware of the different gods being worshipped in the Athenian marketplace and wasn’t afraid to discuss them. He was familiar with the philosophical and rhetorical communication so common among the Areopagites, and used them to great effect in his speech to them.
Did Paul convert everyone? No. Did some ridicule him? Yes. But there were those who were persuaded by a brief encounter with Paul (Dionysius and Damaris) to abandon their ingrained cultural beliefs and accept the Gospel for their lives.
Part of the church’s mission and calling is to understand and witness to the culture in which it finds itself. While history compels us to often look back at the time of Rome as one of decadence and depravity, if we’re honest historically we can see a time of great opportunity. There was a vast interest in thought and philosophy, even religious discussion. It was a time of great leaps in technology and science. It was a time of uncertainty and fear.
In many ways, it was a time very much like the one we currently inhabit here in the U.S. Only our society is not responding to the Gospel the way Rome did. Many scholars and researchers have tried to explain why our culture is abandoning the Gospel as opposed to embracing it the way Rome did in the first century, and there are some things to consider: age, history, and abuse of power work against Christianity now, whereas with Paul, the faith was so new as to be an intellectual curiosity. We have progressed to heretofore unknown scientific understanding of the physical makeup of our universe, and have been subjected to the idea that divine impulse is not required for our existence.
We face a tough road. But part of why the faith isn’t as robust as it used to be is because the Christian church has – in many ways – removed itself from the marketplace, stopped reasoning with its contemporaries, and forgotten that everything can be connected to God.
Or, if I may be so blunt, we’ve gotten lazy. We’ve assumed that the world will come to us, instead of us going to them. That is wrong. Jesus said that there is no who seek Him, not even one. So we as a church must reset our minds and hearts to this truth: the only way to win the world to Christ is to take Christ to the world.
But what does that mean, take Christ to the world? Take Him where? Take Him how? I want to take just a few minutes to help you understand the marketplace, to understand our current culture, because if we can at least start there, we will discover the unlimited opportunities we have to share the Good News of Christ.
Keep in mind, these are generalizations of the broader culture. And while generalizations are just that – generalizations – there are some distinct features about the current culture that are very different from the church’s perception. Often, we talk about and focus on the negative side of things and lament the degradation or abandonment of past values. But the reality is that the current culture, in many ways, offers the insightful church plenty of opportunities to bring in the younger generation. Thom and Jess Rainer, in their 2011 book “The Millennials” highlight some of the key positive characteristics of the current culture and the generation that drives it:
- The importance of family. Though most people are waiting until their later 20s and even 30s to get married, the commitment to marriage is deeper than ever. With the Millennial generation being significantly impacted by divorce, they are resolved to not enter into marriages that won’t last, are committed to making marriages work, and are advocates (or at the very least, non-obstructionist) for the idea of same-sex marriage.
- The importance of guidance. Many of the younger generation want older adults involved in their lives to offer guidance, wisdom and perspective. The primary folks they want mentoring them are their own parents; younger Americans desire to have parents who can be counted upon for more than just providing for physical needs. If parents aren’t able to step up to the plate (for whatever reason) the Millennial generation has no problem seeking out people with whom they can establish vital, life-long connections.
- The importance of their input on the future. Millennials don’t expect a free ride, and are in many cases contemptuous of that idea. They want to roll up their sleeves, get involved in the issues and challenges before them, and contribute ideas and solutions that help bring about resolution. They also want to be involved in projects and ministries that matter – that address problems in the real world, and help make the world a better place.
- The importance of priorities. This is not a workaholic generation. They are not going to put in the 60-80 hour work weeks of generations past, mainly because they saw how those types of conditions led to the destruction of their parents’ marriages. They are also not going to invest in ministries and activities that they don’t see as productive. Time is their number one currency, and they will invest in things that they understand as having great value, and not invest in things that are simply done “because they’ve always been done.” Vision and leadership are essential to getting them invested. This also translates into the importance of having a clear vision and expectation for those who follow that vision.
- The importance of communication. Some people decry the rise of the smartphone, Twitter, Facebook, etc. And there are some real dangers in this Internet Age that have to be accounted for. But this generation thrives on the ability to have access to information and communication at their fingertips. They are not shy about sharing their thoughts, engaging in dialogue, or seeking out expert answers to questions they may have. To reach them may not require “face time” in the traditional sense (home visits, etc), but it certainly requires leaders and mentors who are available via technology, and use that tech wisely.
- The importance of caring. This ties back in with their view of contributing to the future of the planet, but Millennials put a priority on caring. Naturally, being human, caring in the long term/big picture is much easier to establish and practice than caring in the short term/near picture. But at heart, this generation wants to take care of the planet, their neighbor, and their loved ones in the best way possible.
- The importance of authenticity. This generation distrusts institutions and authority, and with good reason. Millennials simply do not respond well to some one saying, “I’m in charge and I told you so.” They push back when they perceive error; they question as a way of learning; they desire someone to tell them the truth, not just about spiritual things, but about how deeply those spiritual things impact the everyday life. They want people who can admit their mistakes, own up to their need for grace, and offer grace and compassion without condescension. They will allow you to make judgments on their decisions if you have proven yourself to be someone they can trust. And that trust takes time to build.
- The unimportance of religion. The Millennial generation, this current culture, is the fastest growing population of “Nones” in recent history. Over 30 percent of the Millennial generation self-identifies as being non-religious, which includes everything from atheism to agnosticism to having no official ties to any particular type of religious organization. Church is not an obligation to which they will hold out of respect. They will not live by a certain ethical standard simply because a religious leader says so. But they will respond to spirituality, which can be a bad word, but offers an in-road to reach them. The idea of a Savior who knows them, loves them, and has a plan for their life is a powerful idea, especially when coupled with the transformative power of the Gospel (that Jesus doesn’t command you to do things to be saved; he saves you to do things).
While not everyone you meet will have all of these characteristics, a great many of the people you see each day at work, in the store, at the ball field, at the gym, in the bank, or on your street share at least a few of these traits. What we are called to do is be like Paul – to look, listen, and learn which people have which traits, and then engage them at that point. We don’t have to have all the answers, but we do have to believe that our faith in Christ can provide answers that are better than the world’s.
That’s really another message for another time, but I don’t want to leave you without a starting place. I’d like to recommend six books you can read over the course of this year that would do a lot to help you take advantage of the current culture.
- Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis
- The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel
- Is God Just a Human Invention? by Sean McDowell
- The Millennials by Thom and Jess Rainer
- You Lost Me by David Kinnaman
- The Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard
I want you to pray for God to awaken in you an awareness of the world around you, to give you eyes to see opportunity instead of obstacle, to give you a heart for reaching out to the world instead of waiting for the world to come to you.
Father God, may we your people take seriously again your command to GO and reach the world.