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“How do I talk to these people?”

Date: May 16, 2022/Speaker: Sharla Hulsey
Greek statues

Acts 17:16-34

It’s one thing to preach the gospel when most of the folks listening are already Christian, or at least predisposed in that direction.  But we don’t always have that option.

These days we’re seeing three, even four, generations who have not been part of church, and at this point many of them don’t really even know why church should matter to them.  At least that many generations haven’t read the Bible enough even to understand the origin of some of the references that are part of our everyday language, like “forbidden fruit,”[1] or “the handwriting on the wall,” or “in the lions’ den,”[2] or “Damascus Road.”[3]

How do we talk to people who are on a completely different path than we are, and speak a completely different language?  Paul’s time in Athens might help us figure out the answer to that question.

In Acts 17, while Paul waits in Athens for some traveling companions to catch up with him, he finds himself deep in the heart of Greek philosophy and thought.  I’d guess that the minute he was inside the Athens city limits, Paul knew he was facing a tough room in Athens.

Being a good Jew, with “Thou shalt make no graven image” burned into his heart, he looked at the architectural and artistic wealth of that city—which we still marvel over today—as nothing but a wasteland “full of idols.”  Statues of all sorts of gods:  Athena, Zeus, Mars, maybe even the Persian Mithras and the Egyptian Isis.  Statues dedicated to “the gods we don’t know about yet,” from Asia, Africa, and other places.

We see them today as beautiful art, even if we don’t believe in the gods they represent.

Paul was first and foremost an evangelist:  he had the Good News of Jesus Christ and knew everyone needed to hear it.  But he knew he was going to have a hard time convincing these folks.  Paul isn’t one to back off from a challenge, though.  He just wades right in.

He starts with the Jews in the synagogues.  At least they have something in common with him.

But he also goes to the marketplace, the agora, the place where goods are bought and sold, deals are made, ideas are discussed—sort of the ancient equivalent of a modern shopping mall.  He gets to arguing with the philosophers there, and some of them are at least intrigued. 

It seems that the main idol among the Athenian philosophers of the day was novelty.  If it was new, they’d listen.  Maybe they’d even incorporate this new god into the assortment of gods they already acknowledge—even if that acknowledgement doesn’t make a whit of difference in the way they live their lives.  It’s a sort of entertaining way to while away an afternoon, at any rate.

So they take him to the town council that meets on the Areopagus, or Mars Hill.  (Ares is the Greek name for the god the Romans called Mars.)  And these folks look at Paul and ask politely, “May we hear about this new thing you’re teaching?”

Obviously they’re not going to understand him if he uses the same style, the same illustrations, the same references to Hebrew Scripture, as he would when speaking to his fellow Jews.  So this speech is nothing like any other speech Paul makes in Acts, and it’s not like anything in any of his letters.  What it is, is a good example of classical rhetoric, the kind of public speaking that Greek thinkers appreciated.

He starts by flattering his audience.  “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.”

Well, the Athenians think they’re being flattered.  Paul’s sarcasm is lost on them.  They don’t know that Paul sees all their statues as nothing but useless hunks of rock—they don’t know that Paul doesn’t think they’re very religious at all.  They believe in all these gods, but they’re pretty much irrelevant in their daily lives.

But Paul keeps going.  He makes a point of contact with the hearers, finds a doorway through which he can step with his message.

“I even saw an altar dedicated ‘to an unknown god.’  Well, I know who that ‘unknown god’ is, and I’ll tell you.”  He nods to the belief of the Stoic philosophers that God can’t be boxed up in a temple or other building—which of course he also believes.  He quotes a couple of Greek poets that his audience would recognize, but redirects them so they refer to the God of Jesus Christ.

More than likely, at this point, the philosophers are listening intently.  They’re understanding what he’s saying.  It’s making sense.  Now he moves into the heart of his message—and this is where he’s going to lose a few of them.

“We shouldn’t think that God is anything like a statue, something a human being has sculpted.  That’s an ignorant way of thinking, and God has been prepared to overlook ignorance up until now.  But no more.”

I can almost hear them.

“Wait a minute!  Is he saying we’re ignorant?  We, the most sophisticated, learned, intellectual people in the known world, ignorant?  Who’s this foreigner think he is?”

So some of them tune out, don’t hear him call them to repent and accept the God he’s preaching, don’t hear him tell about the Man that God has raised from the dead.

A lot of the folks who hear Paul’s speech go away laughing.  “What an idiot.  What ridiculous ideas.”

Others are polite, but dismissive.  “That was…uhh…very interesting.  We’d like to hear more.  We’ll call you.”

But a few have heard well, and become Christians.

Some scholars look at this story of Paul in Athens and say that the story is about Paul’s one big failure.  It’s definitely a failure if we’re talking about numbers.  Only two converts whose names we know, and vague reference to a few others.  Greek philosophy and Christianity don’t mix, they say; and the people of Athens were just not receptive to the notion of a man sent from God and raised from the dead, who one day would judge all of humanity in righteousness.

Paul did his best in Athens, but he left town a failure, with only a handful of new converts.

Do you think that’s true?  Did Paul’s ministry in Athens fail?  If this was failure, what would success have looked like?

When we think about a successful outcome of a missionary effort or preaching event, I suspect we imagine something like what happened in Acts 2:  three thousand people baptized after Peter preached one sermon, and more baptisms every single day after that for quite awhile thereafter.  If that’s our standard for success, though, there are a lot of failures; and according to that standard, Paul was a failure just about everywhere he went—yet we think of him as the greatest of the apostles.

Starting with Acts 9, Paul is run out of a lot of towns he preaches in, imprisoned in some others, and there’s never a mention of any sermon of his resulting in three thousand baptisms. 

Was Peter just a better preacher than Paul?  What about all the preachers that have come after them?  Are they to be considered failures if they don’t have three thousand people come forward at the altar call?

I have been to a lot of worship services and listened to a lot of sermons preached by a lot of preachers, including some of the very best of our time, like Fred Craddock, Otis Moss, Jim Forbes, Barbara Brown Taylor, Sharon Watkins, Tony Campolo, Soong-Chan Rah, Grace Imathiu, Joey Jeter, and Tom Long.  I have never been in a worship service where a sermon was followed by that kind of response.  Were they all failures?

What is success?  How do we know if something we’re doing is succeeding?  How does a person know if they are a success?  Is it because we make a lot of money from what we do?  Is that what success is?  If we don’t get rich, does that mean we’ve failed?  Is it because we become powerful, to the point that every word we speak is treated as gospel, every idea we suggest is heard as a command and responded to in kind?

What about in the church?  How do we know if a ministry of the church is successful?  Do we count what’s in the offering plate, and let that be the gauge of whether a worship service has succeeded?  (I hope not.)  Do we measure success based on how many people attend an event?  (Again, I hope not; and I have to say that some of the church events that have had the most positive effect on me, personally, have been some of the smallest in terms of attendance.)

I’ve noticed, over the last several years, a turn of phrase that has become pretty common in church growth and church planting circles, and it sort of bothers me.

Say a person is describing the life of their church, and they say, “We worship about 3,000 people in six services every weekend.”

Did you hear it?  “We worship about 3,000 people…”

I know what they mean:  we have 3,000 people attend our services each week.  But there is something telling in the phrasing.

“We worship about 3,000 people…”

What are we worshiping here?  Are we worshiping God, or the number of backsides in our church seats?

What’s most important?  What does it mean for a church, or a pastor, or a church event or program, to be successful?

Did you know that the majority of churches in the United States have fewer than a hundred people in worship on a Sunday?  Are all those churches failures?

How do we measure success in the Christian church?

How do we measure whether an individual Christian’s life is successful?  I know of churches in which the number of people a member has brought to Christ becomes a source of pride.  If you’ve done your best to live as a Christian, talked about the difference your faith has made in your life, taught children—yours and others in your congregation, or even at camp—about Jesus, but maybe only ever had one person, or maybe none, fall to their knees before you and ask Jesus into their heart, are you a failure?

Are you more, or less, successful as a Christian than a person who goes on mission trips during spring break, spending the week at the beach, yes, but handing out tracts and preaching the gospel to the people lying in the sun?  Is a Christian who simply does their best to live faithfully, to be a Christian all week, not just on Sunday, at work and at home, not just in church, more or less successful than a person who devotes their life to leading revivals in which thousands attend and hundreds make their way down the sawdust trail every night?

What is success?  What is failure?  Did Paul fail at Athens?

Let’s say you’re the leader of the youth group of a small church.  Your group has never raised thousands of dollars and gone on long, life-changing mission trips.[4]  You don’t have spectacular meetings every week, with entertaining and relevant discussions and exciting games.  But at least one person who came up through your youth group can point to you as the one adult in their life who cared about them, who stood beside them as they sought to figure out who they were and whether God loved them as they were.  Are you a success or a failure as a youth leader?

How does God measure success and failure?

Or maybe you’re the pastor of a slightly larger church in a slightly larger town.  You’ve got a good education, maybe even a doctorate.  You’re the parent of good and talented—and well-behaved—children, and you’re active in the community.  But like many churches in many communities, your church is not growing; it’s maintaining a more or less steady membership and worship attendance, bringing in just enough in offerings to pay the bills and give a little to missions.  Are you a success, or a failure?

Some interpreters see the story of Paul in Athens as the story of Paul’s one big failure.  Two converts we know by name, maybe a handful of others who aren’t named.  That’s it.  But we don’t know what happens after this.

Maybe Dionysius tells a few others about Jesus, and two or three more come to believe, and each of them talks to two or three more.  Maybe Damaris does the same, and she gets two or three people to believe, who also go out and proclaim the gospel to two or three others.  It wouldn’t take long before there’s a pretty good Christian community in Athens.  And maybe that community sends one or two out into the outlying areas, and they establish a few little communities in other parts of Greece.

Paul’s success or failure doesn’t depend on how many or how few actually come forward at the altar call.  His success is based on his obedience, his willingness to preach the gospel, even when it’s not likely to be well-received.

No, I don’t think we can say Paul failed in Athens.

And if we tell people about Jesus and most of them dismiss it politely, or even laugh at us, but one or two or three respond by committing to Christ, and a few more think about it for awhile, not slamming the door shut even if they don’t immediately say “yes,” we haven’t failed either.  We have done what God calls us to do, and that’s enough.  We can trust God to cultivate the seeds we’ve planted.  And what Paul did in Athens gives us an example to follow.

Remember how I said this sermon of Paul’s isn’t a thing like the other sermons of his that we have in Acts, or like what’s written in his letters.  There’s a reason for that.

Paul is talking to a different bunch of folks here.  They won’t hear, or understand, a message like the one he might preach in a synagogue.

Jewish folks already understood that there is one God, who has created all things and keeps all of creation going.  The Greeks in Athens didn’t understand that.  They had a smorgasbord of religious options to choose from.

Paul didn’t come into Athens and say, “I have all the answers, and you are all idolaters that are going to burn in hell if you don’t listen to me.”  He looked around, and he found a point of contact—an altar “to an unknown god”—and said he knew that unknown God, the one who created, redeems, and sustains all of life.

In one of Paul’s letters he says, “I have become all things to all people, so that I might by all means save some.”[5]  What he means by this is that when he’s talking to Jews he talks in ways they can understand; when he’s talking to Athenian philosophers, he talks like a philosopher.  The message is the same, but the language changes.

We live in a time where the world around us is a lot like Athens. Folks nowadays have all kinds of religious options.  They can go to church, or not.  They can call themselves “spiritual” and cobble together a spirituality that contains bits and pieces from the whole smorgasbord of world religions—a little Christianity, a little reincarnation, a little Sufi mysticism, a little Buddhist meditation, a little Druidism, a little this, a little that.

Think about this:  how many people, even Christians, have you heard talk about reincarnation or the concept of karma?  Those aren’t Christian beliefs; they come from Hindu and Buddhist thought.

I once had a youth become very upset when I told them reincarnation isn’t a Christian belief, isn’t in the Bible.  They said they had lost a loved one, and believed in reincarnation because it gave them hope that they would see that loved one again.

(I’d argue that we haven’t done a very good job of teaching Christian beliefs relating to death and resurrection, if we have people in our churches who believe reincarnation is the only way they’ll be reunited with their departed loved ones.)

How do we proclaim the Christian faith as the best possible option?  How do we present Christianity as a faith and a way of life that really makes a difference in individual lives and in the world?  That’s the lesson we have to learn from Paul.

We need to get to know the people we’re talking to.  Make friends with them first, and listen to them.  Find out what their yearnings are, what they think, what their hopes and dreams are.

Once we’ve done that, the Holy Spirit can help us find the best way to talk about our faith so that at least a few people will hear us and respond.  And if we plant the seeds, even if we don’t ever see them grow, then I don’t think God will consider our efforts to have failed, any more than God would have considered Paul to have failed in Athens.


[1] Referring, of course, to the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2—3.

[2] Both of these come from Daniel, chapter 3 and chapter 5, respectively.

[3] The site of Paul’s conversion in Acts 9.

[4] A lot of those mission trips, especially to poor countries, are now seen by many as problematic, as groups of American kids swoop into a community, build something, and then leave, with very little knowledge or understanding about the lives of the people among whom they’ve just worked.

[5] 1 Corinthians 9:22