3 Cultural Engagement Lessons from Acts 17

Cultural Engagement

Got a cultural engagement question for you today: Ever wonder how you can better engage with that skeptical co-worker, friend or family member? How should we interact with the broader culture as ambassadors of Christ?

Besides teaching Christian Apologetics at William Jessup University, I’m also a cultural engagement fellow at Dallas Theological Seminary. One of the things I learned during my first year with the Hendricks Center for Christian Leadership and Cultural Engagement is that the Apostle Paul provides a great model of cultural engagement in his 1st century context that can help us think about our spiritual conversations with skeptics in the 21st century.

apostle-paul-in-athens-4In Acts 17:16-34, Luke reports that Paul visited Athens–a city which was a huge draw for people looking to get involved in spiritual conversations. It seemed like everyone was into talking about a bunch of religious and philosophical issues.

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.

Paul’s Cultural Engagement Method

Truth matters. But tone matters, too. Take a look at three cultural engagement lessons based on Paul’s encounter with the people of Athens:

1. Have a Heart

apostle-paul-in-athens-acts17It’s obvious that Paul really cared about the people he spoke with–even when it seemed like their beliefs were the complete opposite of his Jewish background. Just imagine how he must have felt when he saw a city full of idols. Luke reports in Acts 17:16 that Paul was “greatly distressed.” Luke’s comment here probably means Paul was totally irritated by it all [A]. As a well-trained Pharisee, he knew full well how seriously God dealt with idolatry in his own country.

But Paul didn’t lose it.  He didn’t freak out or blow through like a hurricane, going, “You people have got it all wrong!” I really like how he didn’t show up with a spiritual chip on his shoulder—even though he might have really been offended by the idolatry he saw throughout the entire city. Like Jesus, his engagement with the culture was fuelled by a heart of compassion.

How often is compassion on our hearts and minds when we think about  cultural engagement?

2. Prepare for Insults and Interest

So we’re not the “cool kids” in the popular culture. I get it. Rejection comes with the territory for ambassadors of Christ. As Darrell Bock once said:

“Popularity is not something that the New Testament tells us to expect. It is, again, another tension in the Christian life that we reach out to the world, we stretch out a hand to the world, we say, ‘God cares for you and loves you,’ and yet there is a rejection that often comes with that. But Jesus said, ‘If they rejected me, they’re going to reject you.’”

apostle-paul-in-athens-2I totally agree. Here’s a quick  cultural engagement maxim: “Sometimes, the culture pushes back.” Kind of like the people in Athens who basically called Paul an ignorant show-off who was ripping off ideas from a bunch of different philosophies.

But here’s thing. Not everyone’s going to reject the gospel. In Athens, people like Dionysius, Damaris, and others actually accepted Paul’s message. Others were at least interested enough to keep the conversation going. And that’s not a bad place to be, either.

Look, we can’t know how God will use our cultural engagement in the spiritual journeys of people you meet everyday–people who might eventually come to faith in Christ. So please don’t give up on your skeptical friends. Please don’t give up on your skeptical family members or co-workers! I’ve been at this for a little while now, and I’ve found that persuasion can sometimes happen just a little bit at a time.

So relax. There’s no need to hit home-runs with every interaction. Sometimes, gently inviting your skeptical friend into the next conversation can be a big step in the right direction.

3. Challenge People Well

Let’s get back to Athens. Remember that Paul was talking to people from a bunch of different religious backgrounds. But he approached the conversation like this: “What you worship without knowing it, this I proclaim to you” (v.23).

apostle-paul-in-athens-3It’s interesting how he’s kind of got some tension going on with his method. One the one hand, he’s got a hand extended to them, but he’s also got a challenge wrapped up in it. He’s got an engaging tone and that make a world of difference in this case.

I like that way Paul challenged people as he engaged the culture. He respects their quest for spirituality, but then he clarifies what they’re looking for. In fact, he defines it. It’s almost like he knew them so well that he totally got where they were, spiritually speaking, and where they needed to go to find a real relationship with God—the one thing that actually brings lasting human fulfillment.

Acts 17 should challenge us as defenders of the faith to engage the culture in a way that respects a quest for truth or spirituality. Let’s show our friends we’re sympathetic to where they’re at and really try to get where they’re at in all of this, even as we gently turn our conversations towards the Bible and the hope we have in Jesus.

Like this? Get the full story. This cultural engagement article was adapted from a series of posts called 7 Tips on Engaging Skeptics Like Paul Did in Athens. Read the original posts: Part 1Part 2 and Part 3.

Truth, Tone and Cultural Engagement

The Apostle Paul’s encounter in Acts 17 shows us that it’s important to communicate truth, but it’s also important to do it with the tone of an ambassador of Christ—caring about people with a heart of compassion, being ready for interest alongside rejection, and challenging people well. May this biblical example from the 1st century inspire our  cultural engagement and spiritual conversations with skeptics in the 21st century.

[A] “‘The NIV is too gentle in saying that he was “greatly distressed’ (v. 16). The Greek word Luke used is much stronger (paroxynō). We get our word “paroxysm” from it. Paul was ‘infuriated’ at the sight.” Polhill, John B. Acts. Vol. 26. The New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1995. p. 366.



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