making the case

“St. Paul Preaching in Athens”, Raphael, 1515, Royal Collection of the United Kingdom

Acts 17:22-31
For Sunday, May 25, 2014

6th Sunday of Easter, Year A

What would be a compelling case for the gospel in our culture?

Conventional wisdom, at least within my own evangelical tradition, is to build a nice building, provide contemporary worship, good children’s ministry, and hope their lives are transformed.  There are however problems with this approach.  First, it only gets off the ground in more affluent areas (i.e. the suburbs).  Second, decision making becomes driven by the need to pay the mortgage (even if only at a subsoncious level).  As a result, while some life transformation takes place, it happens in  isolation from the wider culture.  Third, rather than the church serving it’s members the members end up serving the church’s programs (again, ultimately, to pay the mortgage).

Apostolic wisdom approach the problem differently.  First, get out there.  The church’s best communicators are not tied to a Sunday morning pulpit but rather engaged in the very centers of culture.  In this case, The Apostle Paul was speaking to the Areopagus, a council of city leaders.  This would be like speaking to the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce (MMAC) here in Milwaukee.

Second, engage in appreciative inquiry.  Paul was greatly distressed to find a city full of idols (v. 16).  What are the idols filling our cities (e.g. consumerism, careerism, self-fulfillment)?  Paul spent time conversing with his audiences, which included pagans in the marketplace and God-fearers in the synagogues (v. 17).   The purpose of these conversations was not be primarily to convert, but to understand and build empathy.  What if we said to ourselves, “Ministry, at least in this stage, is not about getting my message out, but rather letting their questions sink in?”

Third, offer a persuasive apologetic.   Having developed an appreciation for the culture (beliefs, practices, values) of his audience Paul framed his communication of the gospel accordingly.   He knew that a primary value in Athens was knowledge.  Yet they had an altar “To an unknown God” (v. 23).  This was a cultural admission that there was something missing.  Paul said to himself, “Aha, that’s my opening.”  He proclaims to them that the God they do not yet know is there and wanting a relationship with them (v. 24, ff.).

If Paul were giving a similar speech today to the MMAC, where would he start culturally, and where would he finish in terms of an invitation to follow Christ?   Where would he start and finish where you live?  The path to the answer involves getting out there, engaging in appreciative inquiry, and constructing a persuasive apology.  May we have the courage to bring apostolic wisdom to bear on the opportunity before us for the glory of Christ and the gospel.

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