Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The foundation of effective and loving evangelization

Acts 17:15, 22—18:1

In today’s reading Paul is in Athens.  Athens is an interesting city with a fascinating history, and would have been considered that even in Paul’s time.  It was founded 900 BC and to date is the oldest named city in the world, clocking its’ life (today) to the count of 5,000 settled years.  It is a city that is considered the foundation of civilization.  Which, even in the classical times, boasted more rights and democracy than the rest of the civilized world.    In Paul’s time, it was one of the most influential centers of politics, religion, education, and philosophy.  You might say, Paul was preaching in the big house.  Athenians, in general, had a good life and had more opportunity than the rest of the world for education and quality of life.  In other words, it may have been an intimidating place to speak. 

Paul isn’t a slouch though.  We have seen, in previous chapters, Paul reference Stoic and Epicurean philosophers.  (If you don’t know what those are, it’s ok, just know they were popular modes of thought and life style of the time.)  Which means, Paul had a good earthly education as well.  What fascinates me about the way Paul witnesses is his approach, not just here, but consistently through the scripture.  I want to deconstruct it here a little so we might be able to apply it to our own needs as witnesses. 

One of the first thing Paul does is meet his audience where they are and show them that he knows/has interest in them as a people:

 Then Paul stood up at the Areopagus and said:

"You Athenians, I see that in every respect

you are very religious.

For as I walked around looking carefully at your shrines,

Now, let’s look at that.  First of all, the Areopagus (Rock of Ares) in ancient times was an important place where the highest court/counsel in the land met.  (Think the Supreme Court, or Capitol Hill.)  The place he is would contain the aristocratic, the educated, and the cultured people.  Then he speaks.  The first thing he says connects him to them in such a way that they are more prone to listen.  He shows that he knows something about them.  He is showing that he has taken an interest in them as a people.  At this point he could have instantly condemned their idolatry, but he doesn’t.  He opens it up by acknowledging something that, by all rights, they were probably very proud of being.   

The second thing he does is really fascinating:

I even discovered an altar inscribed, 'To an Unknown God.'

He points out something that is possibly dear to the Athenians, and is at the very least a known factor in their lives.  Think of it as a preacher/teacher mentioning or pointing out some well-known attraction in your home town. Later in the Chapter he also says:

For 'In him we live and move and have our being,'
as even some of your poets have said,

Again, connecting their culture to his message. 

In his physical placement, and then in the first few sentences, Paul has met them where they were, mind, body, and soul.  For the ancient Athenians that had to be attention grabbing.  He was laying a foundation of communication by seeking to speak to them on a level they could understand, because that was where they were.  That was important.  Had he started it off in some other way like, “Listen up, you idolatrizing-false god deceived-gentiles!  You are all about to burn in hell if you don’t pay attention here!”  Likely, his audience would have stopped listening-at best-and at worst they would have become combatant. 

In Paul’s opening example, he is able to establish a dialogue. In the end of the reading we see that, even if people weren’t convinced they were willing to hear more.  Some did follow and believe, but those who didn’t had seeds planted that might have grown into real faith at some point because of the way he presented the information.  What Paul did was loving, patient, kind, and full of faith.  He established a relationship by establishing a non-combative dialogue that contained the truth.  He connects his truth with where they are, what they know, and their culture.

Not only has Paul laid a foundation for them, but he has-if we are paying attention-laid a foundation for us.  His example shows us how we can effectively and lovingly carry the truth to the people around us.  It takes work.  We have to have an interest.  We have to be patient.  If our goal is to reach people though, this is a much better model than condemnation.  Hitting people with the condemnation hammer may feel more powerful to us than meeting people where they are, but it is far less effective and ultimately only satisfies our desire to be “correct” and does not our role of being Christ’s love in the world.

Just some food for thought and prayer.

Here I am, Lord, send me.