"If all the world were Christian, it might not matter if all the world were uneducated. But, as it is, a cultural life will exist outside the Church whether it exists inside or not. To be ignorant and simple now -- not to be able to meet the enemies on their own ground -- would be to throw down our weapons, and to betray our uneducated brethren who have, under God, no defense but us against the intellectual attacks of the heathen. Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered. The cool intellect must work not only against cool intellect on the other side, but against the muddy heathen mysticisms which deny intellect altogether."
C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory
In the book of Acts in chapter 17 we read of the Apostle Paul’s time in Athens. He was waiting for Silas and Timothy to come to him. Paul was irritated by this city full of pagan idols. The word used to describe Paul’s feelings is translated to mean “vexed, provoked, irritated and angered”.
I find it interesting how Paul responds to his internal offence, he didn’t let on to the unbelieving people around him that he was feeling this way. He went to the synagogue and “reasoned” with the Jews and devout persons… sharing the gospel with them respectfully. They were intrigued!
Then they lead Paul to the Areopagus, which was a hilltop in Athens where philosophers would debate. Acts details this space with the following description, “Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.”
Paul proceeded to speak to the men in Athens with this statement:
“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. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.”
Notice here that Paul, while he was deeply troubled with these idols… did not start with an accusation that their way was the wrong way, he started by engaging them from their current state of understanding!
We see evangelism in the North American Church in many forms… often when I meet someone who calls themselves an evangelist I get an almost visceral reaction. I can feel their superiority and judgement. Like a dive bomber they swoop into my bubble and with all the finesse of a bull in a China shop ask me if I’ve heard of Jesus.
There would have been a time that such methods would have worked… but in todays post-Christian culture it often does not and I doubt this type of evangelism has worked well for most of Church history.
I used to feel guilty I was not more in peoples face about my faith, influenced by the North American version of evangelism… thankfully those chains are off now! People who know me know I follow Christ. I don’t need to shove Christ down anyone’s throat. The Holy Spirit doesn’t need my help. If you have ever met one of these self proclaimed evangelists as a fellow believer you have probably been told that you have blood on your hands if your not like them. When you see someone talking to them you can see the attempts to get away.
Paul engaged the men of Athens right where they were! In another passage he says this of his take on evangelism:
“To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.”
When Paul left Athens he left some of them wanting to hear more. Acts says this:
“some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.” So Paul went out from their midst. But some men joined him and believed.”
Nabeel Qureshi says of Evangelism:
“Effective evangelism requires relationships. There are very few exceptions.”
Paul understood this basic principle of human nature. He chose to “reason” with people as did the other Apostles. Christianity in this first century was an “anti-religion”. Christian’s were considered “pagans” and often mocked for being “unbelievers”.
Todays evangelism is often boiled down to inviting someone to Church. This isn’t a bad thing, often Church can be a catalyst for deeper conversations! The problem lies with the fact that many Christian’s proselytize to gain attendance or loyalty to their Church… creating a cultish kind of Religious experience rather than actually introducing someone to the man named Jesus. People and institutions will always disappoint... Jesus Christ never does!
Jesus words to the Scribes and Pharisees were blunt on how they approached evangelism:
“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you cross land and sea to make one convert, and then you turn that person into twice the child of hell you yourselves are!
- from the Living Translation Bible
In the early Church… it was radically different! The Church had no buildings, no priests, no worship team, youth pastor… no physical presence whatsoever. Yet the Churches impact was undeniable…
The Romans would practice their version of abortion… laying the baby on a hilltop to die. The Christian’s would pick up the baby and care for it.
The Romans and the Jewish priests would avoid the sick and terminally ill… the Christian’s would run towards them to care for them.
The Culture would engage in various sexual activities both in honor of their gods and because slave women were considered sub-human. As such the culture would treat them as objects for self gratification regardless of marriage status. The Church stood apart from culture placing value on all humans!
Speaking of Slavery, this scourge was everywhere… except among the Christian communities where the slave was equal-to everyone else. Christianity was countercultural. While the Christian community could not free the slaves bound by Roman law, they could honor them with dignity and human respect as equal creations before God.
Women in Roman culture were considered objects… they were completely subject to their husbands and men overall. Men would often have multiple wives and Roman men would have additional sexual relations outside of the wives they had. The woman was subject to the man to a degree only slightly above their children or slaves. Conversely in the Christian community a woman was elevated. You can see this as many women travelled and held powerful ministry positions in the New Testament. Christianity stood in sharp contrast to the culture in this way.
Today the follower of Christ would be wise to come back to their first love in regards to Evangelism. It is out of a love for Jesus Christ, not a duty bound to an organization or a leader that successful evangelism can grow. The organization must become less… and the organism must become more in regards to impacting the world around us.
If we are to engage our culture… we need to start our story where they are now as Paul did. Where can God meet them in their present state? As Paul did with the people of Athens… we can engage the culture in their current state… without joining them in their approval of sin, and while maintaining respect for their humanity as an equal creation.
Evangelism is changing, denominationalism is dying… and the Church can again become salt and light pointing to God… as Paul says
“though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.”
1 Corinthians ESV
Biblical evangelism looks different, it will certainly set the world on its side and it will likely be counter cultural. Let’s set the “four spiritual laws” tract aside and simply begin engaging and listening to those around us by building genuinely empathetic and respectful relationships. As we see in the early Church… successful evangelism will begin by listening to both the Holy Spirit and to the people or person we are trying to reach for Christ!
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