To an Unknown God
Many years ago, the apostle Paul confronted a Christless culture in Athens, Greece. Yet his challenge on that day is identical to the challenge we face in our culture. How do we remain faithful in faithless times? How can we connect with culture without becoming trapped or ruined by the culture?
Some leaders feel the solution is simple: Just engage the culture. The problem is that engaging culture means different things to different people. Others say you need to be relevant. Whose definition should we use? Both suggestions—engaging culture and being relevant—can be steps in the right direction; but without definition, they are fraught with danger. Some who have gone before us have failed at this task. The current culture of our North American landscape is filled with churches that once preached the gospel but no longer do so. Why? Because they didn’t capture their culture; their culture captured them.
The apostle Paul lived in faithless times, yet he remained faithful. His missionary approach to connect with people and culture is considered a pattern to imitate. How did he endure with such effectiveness for the kingdom? He began with conforming himself to Christ. Paul said, “Be imitators of me, as I also am of Christ” (
Equal parts theologian, businessman and philosopher, Paul walked headlong into the heart of Greek culture in order to engage it. He never considered ignoring or avoiding culture. Rather, he engaged with meaningful dialogue on the home field of those he attempted to influence with the gospel. The spiritual conversation began this way:
“Then Paul stood in the middle of the Areopagus and said: ‘Men of Athens! I see that you are extremely religious in every respect. For as I was passing through and observing the objects of your worship, I even found an altar on which was inscribed: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Therefore, what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it—He is Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in shrines made by hands. Neither is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives everyone life and breath and all things” (
By watching Paul in this story we learn from his example how to engage our context today, staying faithful in faithless times. Three clear lessons emerge from the story.
To Engage Well Today, We Must Discern the Times
So, how do we understand culture? Paul engaged the cultural context where he found himself. “While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, his spirit was troubled within him when he saw that the city was full of idols” (
Paul’s cultural engagement was challenged when he was labeled as a “pseudo-intellectual” by the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers (
Paul openly approached the culture and demonstrated a strong desire to understand who they were and what was important to them. He was aware of their philosophies, worldview and religious beliefs. He even said at one point, “I see that you are extremely religious in every respect” (
The same Paul, in front of different people, said in
Paul discerned the context but brought people to the Savior. He made necessary adjustments to communicate well. We are called to do the same that we might proclaim the gospel that changes everything. Paul moved people from where they were to an understanding of a bloody cross and an empty tomb. In
Relevance is a tool; gospel proclamation is the goal. Too many people pursue cultural relevance as the goal. Relevance is merely a tool that can shape the way we do ministry. The reality is that the “how” of ministry is shaped by the “who, when and where” of culture. Separating ourselves from culture is not possible, though some try. Culture is the pond in which we swim and the lens through which we see the world. Culture is the context in which we proclaim a biblically faithful, never changing gospel.
When I led the North American Mission Board Center for Missional Research, we surveyed 1,200 people about heaven. The findings may help shape the right question to start the conversation. We asked if they could strongly agree with this question: “If you were to die today, do you know for sure you’d go to heaven?” Another question we specifically asked them was: “How often do you wonder, ‘If I were to die today, do I know for sure I’d go to heaven?'”
That question has been the standard evangelical pick-up line for the past 50 years. Our conversation starts out, “Hey, how are you? How are you doing? Hey, listen, just wondering, if you were to die today…” You subtly work it into every awkward conversation. You ask, “How’s the team doing?” They answer, “Oh, they’re doing pretty good.” Then you pop the question, “Hey, listen, if you were to die today, do you know…?”
We wanted to know if people were really asking that question. Why? Because the Bible teaches us, “But set apart the Messiah as Lord in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (
I assumed a low percentage of people think about that question. I have a lot of conversations with people who are far from understanding the gospel, and they never seem anxious about dying and facing eternity without Christ. To my surprise, about 20 percent of people indicated they wondered every day if they would go to heave if they were to die. (At EdStetzer.com, search the phrase evangelistic questions to find the presentation.) Do you know why I was surprised that a fifth of respondents wondered every day if they would go to heaven? I was surprised, because I had experienced something different.
To the question, “How can I find more meaning and purpose in my life?” an even a higher number (1 in 3) indicated they wondered about it every day. The reality is that people are asking all kinds of questions in our culture, and the gospel answers those questions with Jesus Christ. We must prepare to engage our context as Paul did, adjusting to different people but bringing them all to the gospel.
Often we are guilty of thinking, “Well, if they would just come to church and think the way we think, act the way we act, dress the way we dress and vote the way we vote, they’d come to know Jesus.” It is unfortunate, but many congregations simply busy themselves with moralizing the unconverted rather than preaching the gospel to the lost.
Church members too often have been taught that the goal of discipleship is to get away from the world. We need to encourage the opposite. Maybe more of us need to hear the criticism Jesus often heard: You are too close to the wrong people. May that be said about all of us! So to engage well and faithfully today, we have to discern the times.
To Engage Well Today, You Must Understand When You Live
Every era and culture has influential voices. Paul understood which voices were affecting the lives of Athenians: “Then also, some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers argued with him. Some said, ‘What is this pseudo-intellectual trying to say?’ Others replied, ‘He seems to be a preacher of foreign deities’ because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. They took him and brought him to the Areopagus, and said, ‘May we learn about this new teaching you’re speaking of?'” (
Paul began to preach a plain message in verse 23: “What you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you.” In verse 24, he declared the supreme position of God as Creator, “The God who made the world and everything in it—He is Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in shrines made by hands.”
Are there universal, underlying principles illustrated in Paul’s dialogue? Yes. Quoting Epicurean and Stoic philosophers is rare today, but people sure are quoting Oprah a lot. I call it the Oprahfication of American religion. It is the worldview that says that truth is relative, and the goal of spirituality is journeying and personal peace.
The reality is that sometimes we forget the worldview of the era in which we live. The world is not filled with people who are aware they are spiritually dead and looking for Jesus. Today, people think they are spiritually alive and are finding their own path to God. God is fine with however they wish to live because the only thing they know is that Jesus said, “Judge not, lest ye be judged.”
The command of Jesus is to proclaim the gospel in our own age. It is not merely to convert the thought pattern of our peers. To communicate clearly, we’ve got to understand the time in which we live. Preaching against all the bad things out there is easy. As a matter of fact, preaching against culture almost has become a regular occurrence in most churches and most pastors’ conferences.
That is not the answer. Preaching against culture is like preaching against someone’s house. It’s where they live. There’s good in it; there’s bad in it; but preaching against all of it doesn’t make sense. What makes sense is to preach against sin and tell Christians to go tell sinners about Jesus.
You can’t engage well simply by going with the culture. You can’t engage evangelistically without living in the culture. So how do we preach Christ in the culture without being captured by it? Missiologists have debated this for some time. In every culture, we find there are certain things we’re going to hold onto as tools for mission and certain things we’re going to reject as antithetical to the mission.
In every culture, there are going to be things we adopt. We’re going to say there are certain things that are value-neutral that we can say we can adopt because they helps us do what God has called us to do in the time and place where we find ourselves. We can adopt those things, but there are other things we have to adapt. There are some things that need to be changed. For example, we may adapt the clothes the world wears. We don’t just adopt all the clothes the world wears (as the father of three daughters, I assure you this is true).
The musical styles used in worship can be a tough issue for many churches. There is no such thing as Christian music, only Christian lyrics. So again, some things we adopt and some we adapt. There are parts that we adapt such as the way we dress. There are things in every culture we must reject because they lead to sin. Doing so involves us understanding when we live and proclaiming a gospel that is unchanged by time.
If we’re going to engage the culture and the time in which we find ourselves, we are going to hold some issues with an open hand. The reality is some of us are going to sing different music, meet at different times and engage in different elements in the worship service. The ministry of the kingdom calls us to preach, proclaim and believe the same gospel.
The challenge is that some people want to contend for everything, ready to battle over every tertiary issue. Music, dress, hairstyles and the number of times you attend church each week all are debated. From pulpit to blog post, some have chosen a decade they prefer and will fight the rest of the body of Christ to stay in it. They will fight to drag the culture back to it, as well. They’re filled with people identifying things for which we contend that are clearly things for which we contextualize.
To Engage Well Today, Preach Christ
Paul demonstrated a clear understanding of those he was trying to reach. Most importantly, he knew what to preach. His pattern was to preach Christ repeatedly. Notice the bridge Paul built from something familiar to his Athens audience to someone familiar to him—Jesus: “For as I was passing through and observing the objects of your worship, I even found an altar on which [is] inscribed: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.” I am all about building a bridge to culture, but something is intended to cross that bridge. Paul revealed the identity of God, previously unknown to the Athenians, as Jesus Christ.
If you’re only building a bridge to culture so people can find your church, then you’ll be captured by the culture because your goal is a crowd. The goal of the gospel is more disciples for Jesus, not a big congregation for you. The right reason to build a bridge is for the gospel to cross over to the people in the culture.
Paul found an altar to an unknown God in Athens and confronted their worship done ignorantly. He understood what an incredible barrier this god was to the people of Athens being able to find Jesus. Paul resisted the temptation to let the fear of offending his new friends stop him from proclaiming the truth. Ignorance is not exactly in the list of sweet-feeling words.
Paul proclaimed, “The God who made the world and everything in it—He is Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in shrines made by hands” (
LifeWay Research did a survey that was picked up by USA Today and CNN. I was invited on CNN to speak live and in person about this research. Needless to say, I was nervous, mainly because our own research painted Christians in a negative light. Just before going live, I found out from the producer they thought LifeWay Research was an anti-Christian organization. The news was too bad to be released by Christians. If you watch the YouTube clip it’s me, the anchor, Mike Galanos, and the onscreen tagline: “Attacks on Christians?” That was not the theme I was hoping for!
I explained in the research and on CNN that the vast majority of unchurched respondents to one of our surveys (79%) said Christianity is more about organized religion than about loving God and people. Also, 72 percent of the respondents said the church is full of hypocrites or people who do one thing but say another. Perhaps the one stat that garnered the most attention was this: 44 percent of the unchurched surveyed said Christians “got on their nerves.” It is not exactly the conversation one wants to have on CNN—or with anyone in your neighborhood.
I wanted to be like Franklin Graham. He gets on the news shows and brings everything to Jesus. Larry King would ask, “Well, Franklin, how’s your dad today?” Franklin would reply, “You know, Dad’s doing well, and he’s having a good day. You know, Larry, this is the day the Lord has made. This kind of day reminds me of a day 2,000 years ago on a hill outside Jerusalem when Jesus died on the cross for your sin, in your place; and, Larry, today could be your day of salvation!” He always preaches Christ in this manner and in this content. We must start where people are, but never leave them without hearing the good news of the gospel.
On CNN, we talked about the research, but I kept trying to point to Jesus. Finally, I said, “Mike, this message never will be popular. There’s always going to be what the Bible calls the stumbling block of the cross. It’s always going to be hard for people to [understand] that God sent His Son who died…About 90 percent say I’ve got a close friend who considers himself or herself a Christian. So I think, ultimately, Christians have a faith that, by nature, needs to be shared. So I think we need not to be afraid of that, but proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ and let people hear the message.”
Part of the challenge is a lot of people are tripping over the stumbling block of Christians before they get to the stumbling block of the cross. I don’t know that I succeeded, but what I tried to do was speak of Jesus, the need for men and women to trust and follow Him and repent of their sins.
My point then and now is simple: Too many churches love their church culture more than they love Christ’s mission. Yet if I follow Paul in the way he followed Christ, I will care for people of the culture who exist outside my church. The gospel has not changed. The mission has not changed. It is still on a mission of reconciliation, pleading on behalf of Christ, “Be reconciled to God” (
So if we’re going to endure today, to be faithful in faithless times, we’re going to have to leave where we are comfortable. We’re going to have to go and tell, not just wait for them to come and see. That may mean reshaping some of the ways we preach and lead the church. We always must build a biblically faithful church, but live in the context where we find ourselves.
A biblically faithful church in Seattle should look different than one in Selma, Alabama. A church in Selma should look different than one in Senegal. The bottom line is that where we are may influence the way we have conversations about Jesus, but the conversations always are about Jesus.
Paul was unashamed to say, “What you have worshiped in ignorance, this I proclaim to you.” We live in a world where people are unaware of the true gospel of Jesus Christ. The answer for being faithful in faithless times is to take the unchanging gospel message to build bridges, start conversations and engage in relationships with people who are far from God.
The problem is that many of us have forgotten that ministry must be less about us and more about Jesus, His Kingdom and His mission. When I look to Paul, I am struck with his boldness and savvy. May we all be bold and wise as we engage an increasingly hostile and confused culture around us with the greatest news the world has ever known—Jesus Christ, the way, the truth and the life.