Like Paul, we must engage people with the gospel in their cultural context.
The first decade of the 21st century marked the first time in history that a majority of people live in urban centers rather than rural areas. With this, Western societies began to experience the influx of postmodern thinking and behaviors. These two philosophical shifts have had an impact on the church, which for the last few centuries has been more effective in reaching rural and suburban populations with theological and methodological approaches strongly rooted in 500 years of modern thinking.
Is this something new? Yes and no. While immense urban growth and postmodernism may be prevalent in today’s global village, the challenge to reach cities embedded with secular and humanistic thinking is nothing new. In Acts 17, we learn how the Apostle Paul took the message of God to the most humanistic of the city centers of his time.
“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 Godfearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace” (Acts 17:16–17).
Recently, I visited Athens with my friend, mentor, and retired district superintendent Ken Mills. We envisioned how Paul, with a clear sense of God’s mission, presented the resurrected Christ to the most educated and pagan cities of His time.
The Lord used Paul’s sense of mission to establish the church in the intellectual center of the world and, hence, setting the stage for the spreading of the message to other cities around the world. These lessons are worth our consideration.
Have passion for cities. We cannot reach Western cities unless we have a passion for them. By “cities,” we do not only mean what’s called the “inner city.” Historically, our church has been effective in reaching the marginalized urban centers with ministries of compassion and social services for the last and the least—the poor and the disenfranchised. However, God sees cities as a whole, and we have the unequivocal mandate to reach everyone.
Establish a presence in the marketplace. In the past, we reached cities by opening a church and expecting people to “come and join” it. Now, we must engage people where they are—in the marketplace, coffee houses, cultural venues, places where they “hang out.” Paul did not limit his urban presence by just visiting the synagogue and engaging the religious people there. He went to the people, to their “happening places” in the heart of the city such as the Agora. This incarnational presence allowed him to enter into dialogue with them. According to verse 17, he “reasoned” the good news of Jesus and His resurrection “in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there.”
Paul did not get distracted by their politics, sociology, or philosophy, but he engaged people on their own terms. Paul preached the good news about Jesus and the resurrection (v. 18).
The message has not and will not change. Jesus is Lord. He is risen. He is risen indeed!
Engage the culture. Our theological foundations, Bible knowledge, and church subculture are often unknown by our city neighbors, or even rejected. To reach postmodern generations flooding urban centers, we must learn about their cultures, heroes, icons, and languages. We must draw lessons about the lordship of Jesus from some connecting elements of their culture. Paul did exactly that.
Be optimistically objective about results. Even when the church engages the city incarnationally, contextually, and meaningfully, the results to which we are used to seeing in suburban and rural contexts do not happen at the same rate and with the same volume. This should not deter us.
Some who heard about the resurrection of the dead (perhaps the majority) sneered at Paul. But others wanted to hear more (v. 32). The few who believed became the core of the Athen’s church. Paul was encouraged to write to the Corinthian church years later: “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow” (1 Corinthians 3:6–7).
Parallels to Acts 17 exist around the world. In Frankfurt, Germany, a group of young believers (third-generation Nazarenes) minister through Kirche in Action (KiA). KiA is reaching the urban centers of the Frankfurt-Mainz area through coffee houses, theater gatherings, art expositions, refugee work, hospital and nursing home services. An incubator for urban global ministry has been put in place.
Gustavo A. Crocker is a general superintendent in the Church of the Nazarene.