Cultural Engagement Tips
My studies at Dallas Theological Seminary have challenged me to think about practical lessons we can learn from Paul’s engagement in Acts 17. I recently had a conversation about this passage with my mentor, Dr. Darrell Bock, and I’ve discovered some cultural engagement tips that every defender of the faith should know.
So today, I’m beginning a new series of posts called “7 Tips on Engaging Skeptics Like Paul Did in Athens.” In this post, we’ll kick things off with a little background, so you know what Paul was walking into. Then, we’ll just take a look at two simple lessons we can learn from his encounter in Acts 17.
The Apostle Paul in Athens – Background
Besides religion, a lot of people were big into philosophy, too. Athens was home to Socrates, Plato and Aristotle–basically the center of Greek philosophy. So what can everyday defenders of the faith learn from Paul’s encounter in Athens?
Back in the day, Athens was a massive intellectual center. Anyone who set foot in the city couldn’t help but notice all the statues, temples, altars and inscriptions to various deities. So polytheism–a belief in many gods–was everywhere. For example, there was a temple honoring Hephaestion, the god of the craftsmen. The Parthenon tourists visit today was actually huge temple honoring Athena—the patron goddess of the whole city.
The Apostle Paul in Athens – Lessons
Here are two life lessons from Paul’s time in Athens, recorded by Luke in Acts 17:
1. Care About People
The Apostle Paul cared about people. We should, too. I mean really care–even if their lifestyles or religious beliefs kinda creep you out. While Paul was in Athens, “he was greatly upset because he saw the city was full of idols (16).” As a devout Jew, this might have made him sick. As a Pharisee, he knew how seriously God dealt with Israel over idol worship in the past.
But Paul didn’t flip out in the streets. And he didn’t show up with a spiritual chip on his shoulder, like he was somehow better than them. His engagement with the culture was fueled by deep compassion for people enslaved to idolatry. Kinda reminds me of Jesus’ own compassion for the unbelieving crowds (Matthew 9:36).
Here’s the point: Our conversation and engagement should be fueled by compassion. It’s always good to do a quick heart check before engaging with a skeptical audience. Put yourself in their shoes for a second and think about how you’re gonna come across. Then, ask yourself, “Am I doing this out of love and compassion?”
2. Prepare for Insults and Interest
“So he was addressing the Jews and the God-fearing Gentiles in the synagogue, and in the marketplace every day those who happened to be there. Also some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers were conversing with him, and some were asking, “What does this foolish babbler want to say?” (17-18)
Paul had kind of a mixed bag here. Some were basically calling him an “ignorant show-off” or a “charlatan” who was ripping stuff off a bunch of other philosophies. I’ve been called worse. Maybe you have, too.
But Jesus himself actually warned believers that they would be rejected—just like he was (John 15:18-25). Still, that doesn’t mean everyone’s gonna reject the message. For example, Paul’s message was accepted by “a few men…(including) Dionysius…Damaris, and a number of others” (Acts 17:34). There’s just no way to know who will eventually be persuaded by the gospel.
Although most Christians I’ve met don’t say that apologetics played a major role in their conversion, those who do are often used by God for the advancement of his kingdom. Think about the impact of people like C.S. Lewis, Josh McDowell, Lee Strobel, and even lesser-known former atheists like my friend, Dr. Holly Ordway, who is now heading up a new M.A. in Christian Apologetics program at Houston Baptist University.What a sad thing to imagine a Christian brother or sister thinking about a skeptical friend, going, “Why even bother talking to them about spiritual things? They’ll probably just make fun of me and reject the gospel anyway.”
Someone once told me I had “thick skin.” I really don’t. But when stuff gets to me, I’m reminded that it’s all worth it for the sake of our Lord. Paul’s own words often encourage me in this:
“Be firm. Don’t be moved! Always be outstanding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Cor. 15:58).
Back to Athens. Here, the people who didn’t outright reject Paul’s message wanted to have another conversation with him. In fact, they came right out and asked him:
“May we know what this new teaching is that you are proclaiming? For you are bringing some surprising things to our ears, so we want to know what they mean.” (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there used to spend their time in nothing else than telling or listening to something new.)
Here’s the point: Interest and insults come with the territory. No surprise there. But don’t forget that persuasion can happen just a little bit at a time. Even just saying something that invites a skeptic or seeker into the next conversation is a step in the right direction.
That’s all for now. Next time, I’ll share 3 tips from Paul’s “subversive” speech. Stay tuned for the next installment of this series on engaging skeptics like Paul did in Athens.