It is fascinating to me how the lessons from history apply in contemporary settings.
For example, the religious and philosophical culture of the first century was intensely pluralistic. Many religions were accepted. Many gods worshiped. And oftentimes people “practiced” more than one religion through rituals and rites.
When Paul entered Athens in Acts 17, he encountered a number of religions, philosophies, and ideas. In some ways, Paul’s experience in Athens echoes contemporary Western society where religious pluralism is prevalent. I realize that pluralism in the first century was practical in nature while contemporary pluralism is more philosophical. In the first century, the practice of religion was more important than the beliefs, philosophies or truths that undergirded it.
Things have certainly shifted. But the reality is that the religious culture faced by Christianity’s first evangelists is not that dissimilar from the religious culture of today.
As such, we should learn some lessons from Paul’s evangelistic methods as well as his preaching themes from Acts 17:16-32.
While the truth of Scripture grounds our evangelism, culture’s idolatry and false worship should impassion our witness. Paul was provoked by the idol worship he witnessed in Athens, and his provocation spurred him to evangelize in the city. The current religious culture should motivate us to evangelize those who have been blinded by the enemy to worship false gods.
Our initial goal in evangelism is not to offend by our manner and tone (though the message of the cross does offend), but to gain a hearing for the gospel. In the story, Paul was invited to preach to the crowds at the Areopagus. But he did not begin by condemning their false worship. Rather, he complimented their religiosity while refuting their errors with kindness. In other words, Paul was not afraid to speak the truth, but he did so in love and gentleness. Speaking the truth does not mean we have to be mad, angry, or volatile in our tone when evangelizing or preaching. We should speak the truth in love, especially toward lost people.
When evangelizing in today’s pluralistic climate, we should seek to understand the religious viewpoints that surround us. Yes, preaching the gospel is enough to convict sinners. Paul preached the gospel here and in many other places. But if you explore his sermon, he quoted from non-Christian philosophers and was well acquainted with the religious milieu of the day. In other words, what he understood about the religious and philosophical opinions of the Athenians shaped his gospel preaching. He contextualized his message so his hearers would respond.
Successful evangelism in a hostile culture must first get the hearer on the same page as the communicator. Paul’s hearers on that day in Athens were not on the same page with regard to God, human nature, and salvation. They were engrained with false religious views and philosophies. Sometimes, I think contemporary evangelism is hindered because we talk past one another. We say “God” and what someone else hears is not the one true “God” of the Bible, but a god of their own making, a false god from another religion, or an incorrect view of the biblical God. Paul addressed the broad theological concepts of God, creation, idolatry, Christ and the resurrection, and repentance in order to help his hearers understand his message.
Because pre-evangelism and evangelism requires communication of such broad aspects of the gospel, preaching is a natural and effective means of evangelism. In this example from Acts 17, some were converted on that day, some outright rejected Paul’s message, but others said, “We will hear you again about this.” Preaching is not only the prescribed means by which God communicates the gospel to people (1 Corinthians 1:21-25), but it is also the most effective place to teach the grand concepts that form the framework for the gospel: God in his love and holiness, creation, humanity, sin, redemption, Christ in his incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection, repentance and faith.
I’m all for evangelism privately and publicly. I believe we should have consistent personal conversations with lost people.
Evangelism is a personal responsibility. But it is appropriate and utterly beneficial to invite lost people to church to hear the preaching of the Bible.
If the preaching in our churches is aimed at communicating these grand concepts that form the framework for the gospel clearly and we have done our part to invite lost people by creating an environment where they are welcome, we will reap the benefits of seeing people come to faith in Christ in our churches.
The biblical example of preaching is that it partners with evangelism rather nicely.