Athens Revisited

Evangelism to the Gentiles

On a national television program, I once spoke about the need for absolute values. Later the program host took me aside and said, “I don’t understand how you religious people think you can impose your ‘absolute’ values on the rest of us.”

I launched into a long explanation of why a society needs transcendent truths to live by. But the newsman still looked puzzled. Then I recalled that this man’s hobby was sailing. So I asked, “Have you ever sailed at night, using the stars?”

“Sure,” he replied. “Celestial navigation.”

I asked whether he could use celestial navigation if the stars were not in a fixed position. What if they moved around from night to night?

He was silent for a moment; then said, “I see what you mean.” If the stars are to be a guide for navigation, they have to remain constant. And if morality is to be a guide for life, it too has to remain constant.

The story illustrates a common problem we face as Christians today. Often we have to explain the very concept of absolute truth before we can persuade people that Christianity is true.

There was a time when most Americans respected the Bible, and you could quote it with authority. But today only a third of Americans believe the Bible to be true in any literal sense.

There was a time when most Americans were raised in a church. But today Christian language and symbols are foreign. Newsweek tells of a child who saw a crucifix and asked, “Mommy, what’s that man doing?”

There was a time when most Americans accepted absolute standards-that some things are really right or wrong. Today 70 percent reject moral absolutes.

When we go out to evangelize today, we have to keep in mind that it’s a very different world from the one we grew up in.

We can take a lesson from the early church, which developed different evangelistic approaches to Jews and Greeks. The Jews knew the Scriptures, so the apostles could begin directly with the message of Christ as the long-awaited Messiah.

But the Greeks had no prior knowledge of Scripture, so the apostles had to find a starting point familiar to them. The classic example is Paul’s speech on Mars Hill in Athens.

As his springboard, Paul uses a religious site in the city: an altar to an unknown god. Later he quotes a Greek poet. He appeals to the Athenians’ own experience in order to create a common ground before presenting the gospel.

America was once like Jerusalem, where the majority accepted Christian concepts even if they didn’t profess personal faith. But modern America is becoming increasingly like Athens.

In each generation, Christians have the task of recasting the eternal message of salvation in contemporary language-language that resonates with today’s culture.

Our job is to create evangelistic materials that speak to the new pagan mind.

Otherwise, we may one day discover that we have lost touch with the world around us, and are speaking only to ourselves.


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