I recently had the blessing of being able to preach on a Sunday night at my home church, FBC Montgomery. My text for the evening was taken from Acts 17:16-34. Here Paul addresses the city of Athens from the Mars Hill (Areopagus). Although this text is set in the seemingly remote period of the 1st century AD, a central point of my sermon was that the Athens of Paul’s day is not all that different from the mission field that I will soon be entering in Boulder, Colorado. It’s also not so dissimilar from the setting of Ottawa, Canada, where I will be heading on June 28th for a 10-day missions project with a group from First Baptist. The mission field of ancient Athens even bears comparison with the one I find right here in Montgomery, Alabama. In Acts 17, Paul gives us some universal truths about how we must approach missions.
Now other than Jesus Himself, surely no other individual figure is probably as important to Christian history and doctrine than the Apostle Paul. His personal conversion, and subsequent tireless mission work casts a long shadow across the book of Acts. And what works for Paul, what proves effective in his ministry, is precisely the same principle that we can apply to whatever mission field we are trying to bring the Gospel into. Paul is a master missionary, because he learns how to adapt his message to fit the specific culture he’s speaking into, while at the same time ensuring it remains rooted in the unchanging truth of the Gospel. Paul’s message is always both timely, and timeless. 1 Corinthians 9:22 gives us some insight into the Pauline perspective when it comes to evangelism—“I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.” But let us be careful not to misinterpret this famous verse. Modern American society often worships at the altar of a bland cultural relativism, which eschews any notions of absolute Truth, while championing the idea of everyone seeking out their own individual expression of “truth” which can fit into their esoteric mishmash of beliefs. In the name of “tolerance” then, we are often admonished to “respect” others’ beliefs. If this means not to persecute, discriminate against, or ridicule someone for their personal convictions, then I heartily agree, as would most Christians.
But to respect another’s beliefs does not mean that we have no desire to speak truth into their lives. This is what Paul does consistently, at Athens and elsewhere. He knows Christ to be the great universal Truth, and yet by taking advantage of his cosmopolitan background, this Roman citizen, also steeped in Jewish tradition, and writing in Greek, is able to connect with a variety of different cultures, while proclaiming the same consistent and unchanging truth. His end goal is always that which is expressed so eloquently in Ephesians 4:13-14: “Till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting.”
Now according to Acts 17, Athens of the 1st century AD was a city given over to many different gods, and one whose populace displayed a great innate curiosity about different creeds, worldviews, and philosophies. The term “marketplace of ideas” comes to mind. The metaphor of a marketplace of ideas was first introduced by the English political philosopher John Stuart Mill in his influential 1859 treatise On Liberty. Here Mill essentially argues that society should be open to a free exchange of ideas, because truth will inevitably emerge in such a setting. Mill was building upon earlier ideals in the English intellectual tradition, such as those expressed by the eminent poet John Milton (author of Paradise Lost) in his 1644 tract Areopagitica. Here Milton had argued against censorship—“Let her [Truth] and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?” The title of his treatise is interesting, referencing not only the tradition of free speech in ancient Athens, but also possibly paying homage to Paul’s speech in Acts 17, as Milton was a devout Christian. Just as in ancient Athens, many contemporary settings where we might be engaged in missions could be described as “marketplaces of ideas.” We have to learn how to be comfortable bringing the Gospel into such settings. University campuses are perhaps the quintessential example of an intellectual “marketplace”, but increasingly I think this is the norm for almost any setting. People are generally skeptical of overarching truth claims, even here in the “Bible belt. No longer can we take for granted that anyone will put credence in something just because it’s mentioned in the Bible, or has been proclaimed by a pastor or church leader. People are increasingly Biblically “illiterate” and they have to be convinced, often through personal experience that any one doctrine or set of beliefs is universally true and valid. Many never come to such a conclusion. Ironically enough though, with all of the wealth of information at hand to us during this technological age, individuals, perhaps overwhelmed from choice, seem as uncertain as ever about where to turn for purpose and meaning in life.
So where does this leave us, as 21st century missionaries? Well, following the example of Paul, we should enter boldly into the “marketplace” striving to achieve a Holy Spirit-led balance between cultural relevance, and Gospel fidelity. Paul found common ground with Athenians based on their altar to an Unknown God (Acts 17:23), and even quoted from a Greek poet (Acts 17:28). He understood their inherent curiosity about new ideas, and capitalized on their willingness to give the message of the Gospel a fair hearing. But ultimately, when Paul preached, he preached Christ! He warned of a coming time of judgment (17:31), and also presented the great hope of the Resurrection (17:32). It was on this last point that many Athenians ridiculed him, and the notion that men could actually rise from the dead (17:32). And yet, Scripture tells us, some were converted as a result of Paul’s preaching in Athens (17:34). In 2014 FBC Montgomery, as a true “missions factory” is sending Gospel ambassadors around the country and around the world—from Montgomery or Marseille, Jacmel, Haiti to Senegal, New York to Cuba, and Ottawa, Canada to Boulder. In all of these mission endeavors, we like Paul are entering into areas that will be full of ideas, frequently competing ones. We must continually be creative in finding ways to connect with the particular culture we are engaged with. In this way our message is “timely”, relating to the needs, interests, and cultural background of our audience. Our message is “timeless” however, precisely because as Hebrews 13:8 reminds us, “Jesus Christ is the same; yesterday, today, and forever.”
As Milton, Mill, and many great minds throughout history have recognized, truth will ultimately prevail in an open discourse. As Christians we are bearers of the greatest single Truth to ever impact humanity. Therefore far from feeling defensive or tentative, we should go into any mission field with great confidence. All we ask is for someone to give us a hearing—knowing that once expressed, the truth of the Gospel is perfectly able to transform lives, no matter how many competing philosophies, theories, or worldviews may be contesting it. I look forward to being a witness to such transformative power, soon in Ottawa, and starting this fall in Boulder!