Paul’s trip to Athens in Acts 17:16-34 is often used as one of the core texts of the fresh expressions movement. This week our core team looked at the passage and applied it to the situation on our development. Even in the first couple of verses of the passage there is so much about how Paul goes about making connections before he gets to preach at the Areopagus.
While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. (17:16-17)
First, Paul was initially just hanging around waiting for his friends Silas and Timothy to join him. Whilst waiting, he walked around and looked around the city. Not as a tourist but with missional intent. Just by looking, he noticed certain things – that the Athenians had lots of gods. He then went to the places where people were – the synagogue and the market place – and began to engage with them. The market place was a centre for debate as well as somewhere that you bought your provisions. He didn’t engage in anything that was culturally inappropriate, as street preaching is seen to be here, but went to the places where they would naturally hang around.
After debating with a few of them he got an invite to the Areopagus, the council of elders who think and debate and guard the city’s philosophy (verses 22 onwards). Here he gets his chance to speak and share the gospel. It is worth noting that he doesn’t just launch in with sin and the cross and the need to repent, but starts by making connections with the culture he is in. First by complimenting them – “I see that in every way you are very religious” (v22), then by talking about something in their culture that they admit they don’t know everything about.
For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you. (v23)
He goes on to deal with their need – that this God who they don’t know can be known. And at the end Paul does not shirk the challenge that the gospel presents, that God will judge the world, that he has shown this by raising Jesus from the dead, and that all people need to repent and turn to him.
This discussion led us to consider our culture and the false Gods within it. Are there are equivalents of ‘unknown gods’ here? What are the needs of the culture which the gospel can speak into, and where should the gospel challenge the culture?
What are the idols?
There are obvious idols here as in most other western countries – money, beauty, the idea that all can and should be self-sufficient, individualism. People have the sense that hey need to keep up with the neighbours in terms of status and possessions. There are lots of shiny new cars. One member of the team commented, “if people only drove cars they’d actually paid for, this estate would look a lot different!” There is also a strange sort of hedonism that reveals itself in the need to be perpetually entertained (think of homes begin turned into entertainment centres with all the latest gadgets and technology that can decrease the need to communicate with those around us).
What is the unknown god?
It was mentioned that their may be an underlying unknown god which is a lot less obvious than the one in Athens. Perhaps the Star Wars films have had a much greater effect on our generation than we realize, perpetuating the myth that there is an all encompassing life force that can be tapped into and wants you to be the best you can. It has a good and dark side. There are definite links with the gospel here.
What are the needs?
The major need that was mentioned was the lack of social connectedness here. This is a commuter suburb of a well-connected town. People work some distance away and often live a long way from family and support structures. There is a lack of family and belonging and a difficulty in creating community. Where are the ‘market places’ here where people can just show up and engage with others? There are a few but not many.
Other needs include a desire to have a better work/life balance, and work/family balance. Often this is thought to be out of an individual’s control and in the hands of employers. We also think (and this is a bit of a guess) that people struggle to be stewards of what they have. The desire to provide their children with all the latest stuff and to pay the mortgage and have a nice car and holidays etc can be a big challenge for some, and we figure that there is probably a lot of paying on credit going on.
Where are the challenges of the gospel?
Where does the gospel speak into such things? The biggest challenge we see of creating an authentic community is of overcoming privacy. This is quite counter-cultural even though there are signs that people are beginning to want a community in their locality. Often people don’t know how to do it. Here, Christians and the church can take a lead. Linked into this is a challenge against individualist and being self-reliant. It is quite hard to ask for help even if you need it if there is not a culture that is used to help being asked for and offered.
Another challenge we perceive is to overcome the society’s view of identity – being valued regardless of what one owns and the status one thinks they have.
Finally, the culture indicates (and it’s backed up by the media) that everything is okay so long as it is not influencing me. It is fine for anyone to believe what they want to believe and everything is equally valid. Whilst the gospel would promote showing grace and kindness to outsiders, it is certainly a challenge to the culture to say that this is God’s way and that all need to come to him through Jesus. When we get down to it, in any culture, this is the line at which the message of Christ starts to divide, as it did in Athens.