Strangers in our Times (3)
And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new doctrine isof which you speak? For you are bringing some strange things to our ears. Therefore we want to know what these things mean.” Acts 17.19, 20
We could easily get the impression, in this increasingly secular age, that people are no longer interested in God or spiritual things. But that simply is not the case. For all the secular hype in schools, the media, and throughout our culture, most people still believe in God, and many describe themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious.”
Which means there’s no reason inherent in our times why we should not try to engage people in conversation about spiritual matters. Many people today are like those ancient Athenians. They are eclectic in their approach to life, and they’re open to hearing new things, even things that seem strange to their ears. The challenge to us is to express the new life we have in Jesus Christ in ways that demonstrate the hope we have in Him (1 Pet. 3.15), and to talk about that new life in ways that don’t sound old or irrelevant to the people to whom God sends us.
We need to rethink our ideas about the work of evangelism. The people of our secular age are willing to talk and open to hearing what we believe. The onus is on us to let our speech be so gracious and edifying that we earn the right to be heard (Col. 4.6; Eph. 4.29). We can learn much about how to capitalize on people’s interest in spiritual things by looking at Paul.
We can sometimes get the impression that Paul was an aggressive, even pushy evangelist. He was always ready to speak up at a moment’s notice, and he insisted that his view was right, and everybody needed to hear him out and change their ways.
Some of that picture, of course, is true. Paul was an expert at noticing open doors of opportunity, and he went through them whenever he could. As he did, he made no bones about the truth of the Gospel, and the exclusive claims of Jesus Christ.
But Paul’s work of evangelism can sometimes cause contemporary believers to be wary of taking up this calling. After all, Paul was well-informed; he knew his Bible inside-out; he appears to have understood the times in which he lived and all the false worldviews circulating about in his day; and he didn’t mind taking one on the chin for the Lord from time to time. If that’s what being consistent in the work of evangelism requires, then it’s no wonder most Christians are all too ready to leave it to the experts.
But we don’t have to be pushy and punchy as we talk with others about the Good News of Christ, strange as it – and we – may seem to them.
A closer look at Paul
A casual look at some of the verbs used to describe Paul at work among unbelievers should help us to see that he was a careful and tactful evangelist. Paul knew that evangelism is a process (1 Cor. 3.5-7). It takes time, requires a variety of skills, and demands great patience and persistence on the part of those who take up this calling.
Being evangelistic is not like driving a “Gospel dump truck” around the town, with the back bin filled with your testimony, in several versions, and every Scripture, illustration, and objection to the Gospel you’ve ever learned. Thus loaded for bear, you cruise around looking for someone to unload on, and then, when the opportunity arises, you back up your Gospel dump truck and deliver all the contents of the bin in blitzkrieg fashion, hoping for the best.
That’s not evangelism – not effective evangelism, anyway. For Paul, the work of evangelism was more like tending a garden. Sometimes you prepare the soil, other times you sow some seed – little by little. Then you water, fertilize, keep the weeds out, and, above all, wait on the Lord to produce the fruit.
As we see Paul in Thessalonica, Athens, Rome, and elsewhere, he was following just this practice. The verbs used to describe his efforts suggest as much – reasoning, conversing, teaching, testifying, persuading. These are verbs that suggest a context of give-and-take, in which we ask questions, listen attentively, affirm what we can, raise what we must, wait for others to respond, and continue conversations for more than a single session.
The effect of Paul’s doing this in Athens was to provoke his hearers to curiosity about the message he was proclaiming. We can imagine that if Paul had insisted on doing all the talking, pounding people with Bible verses, and refusing to listen to their questions, views, and concerns, they would have run him out of town rather than bring him into the very heart of their most earnest discussions.
We need to take seriously the views of those who regard our Gospel as strange truth, taking the time to learn, listen, talk with, and get to know them, so that they see our Gospel lived as well as hear it spoken. If we can do this, and do it consistently, we may find that, though we may be strangers in our times, others are more curious about what we believe than what we might have thought at first.
1. What could you do to begin learning more about the people you see each week – their backgrounds, interests, beliefs, and so forth?
2. How would you summarize the Gospel in just a couple of sentences? How would you explain what this Gospel means to you?
3. Meditate on Acts 17.32-34. As you begin talking with others about the Gospel, you can expect at least these three responses. Explain each. Was Paul an effective evangelist? If you get such responses as this, what will this say about your work of evangelism?
Next steps – Conversation: Continue reaching out to unsaved people around you. Ask them questions to try to find out what they believe. Seek clarification on their views and positions. Use “Why?” and “How have you come to know this?” and “How does this work out in your own life?” Be patient and listen carefully. The Lord will be at work in your conversations.
Do you understand the Gospel? Feel confident in proclaiming it? Our booklet, The Gospel of the Kingdom, can help you share the Good News with confidence. Order your copy by clicking here. While you’re at it, order a copy of Joy to Your World! and see how you can conduct a consistent witness of joy to the people God sends you to each week (click here).
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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.