Monday, May 15, 2017

Acts 17:22-31 Cross-Cultural Evangelism

KEY TEXT: Acts 17:22-25 So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: "Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, 'To the unknown god.' What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man,  nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.

KEY THOT: When Paul proclaimed the gospel to the Jews, he began with the Scriptures: "And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures" (Acts 17:2). For the Jews, the starting point was Scriptures. But when speaking to Gentiles who had no knowledge of Scriptures (Athenians), Paul's starting point was not Scriptures but their experiences: "I perceive that in every way you are very religious" (v.22). 

Paul began by acknowledging and affirming their religious impulse, instead of condemning them for their idolatry. In fact, he went further and sought to connect with them by pointing out the altar they had built: "To the unknown god". Using that inscription as his starting point, Paul proclaimed the gospel by referring them not to Christ but to Creation: "What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands" (Acts 17:23-25). 

The first principle of evangelism to people with non-biblical worldviews (the Athenians were committed to a Greek philosophical worldview of reincarnation of souls, of gods, goddesses and demigods) is to start where they are, not where we are. Notice that Paul began with (1) their religious experience (2) their knowledge of nature. But he didn't stop there. He even (3) quoted their poets: "'In him we live and move and have our being';as even some of your own poets have said, 'For we are indeed his offspring.'" (v.28). 

In order to speak to people with a non-biblical worldview, we have to first build bridges from where they are so they can come over to where want them to be. It's only after Paul has built the bridges based on their religious experience, their knowledge of creation and their own culture that he called for repentance (change of worldviews): "Being then God's offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent" (vv.29-30).

And then he spoke about Christ: "he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead" (v.31). 

So, he began with the crowd, then with Creation and finally pointed them to Christ. The Jews were already committed to the biblical worldview and they only needed to be convinced that Christ is the promised Messiah-King. But the Athenians had no knowledge of Scripture nor its presuppositions--so using Scripture as starting point would be meaningless to them. So, Paul had to start with their own experience, their knowledge of the created order and their culture.

But notice that the moment Paul mentioned that Christ was resurrected from the dead, the Athenians' reaction was immediately cynical: "Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked" (v.32). The idea of resurrection of the dead is foreign to their worldview presuppositions. The Greek worldview allows for soul reincarnation but not bodily resurrection from the dead. So, in speaking to pre-believers who are committed to a non-biblical worldview, we should not expect them to accept our biblical presuppositions immediately, viz., Scripture is God's word, creationism, history as linear with beginning and end, etc. We have to allow time for understanding these new ideas before a heart commitment can be expected.

Despite Paul's alien idea, some of the Athenians were prepared to hear him out: "But others said, "We will hear you again about this" (v.32). However, some believed what Paul said, though it contradicted their own worldview: "But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them" (v.34). 

But not many.

On the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2, Peter's proclamation of the Gospel netted three thousand converts in a single day. In contrast, Paul's proclamation of the same Gospel resulted in cynicism with only a few converts. The difference does not lie in preacher's anointing but in the audience listening to the Gospel: the Jews in Acts 2 were already committed to the biblical worldview and needed Peter to convince them that Jesus is the Christ. In contrast, the Athenians were committed to a Greek worldview and needed Paul to take time to explain how their own worldview could be reconciled with the biblical worldview--if at all.

This is where Alpha comes in: to evangelize modern-day pre-believers committed to all kinds of non-biblical worldviews--from Taoist/Buddhism and Hinduism to Secular and Cosmic Humanism--we have to give them time to clarify their presuppositions and to consider the biblical worldview and its presuppositions. We need to convince the mind before we can convict the heart to give up its commitment to a non-Christian worldview. 

Alpha allows time for this to take place: changing worldview cannot happen in a 5 minutes "gospel presentation" or even in an one-hour sermon. There are two many intellectual structures to dismantle. Without patience, we cannot reach the "mockers" who are already committed to non-biblical or anti-biblical worldviews. But given time and patience, even these sceptics and cynics can be brought to Christ.

But we must begin where they are, not where we are: we cross over to their land and explain the Gospel by examining common grounds and build bridges based on these common grounds. The best starting point of cross-cultural evangelism is Creation which is visible to all: "For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made" (Romans 1:19-20).

Father, grant us wisdom to reach those with non-biblical worldviews, so that we may exercise patience in reaching them. Amen.


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