I’ve spent the last couple of weeks reflecting on Acts 17.16-34, and its had quite an impact on me. Here we see the Apostle Paul stop in the city of Athens while on his second missionary journey. While stationed there he interacts with a group of people that is incredibly diverse both in its cultural and religious background. Luke (the author of Acts) is careful to notate the variety of perspectives represented, which in turn highlights some of the distinct objections they each had to the proclamation of a crucified and risen Christ.
The first group he engages is the Jews. Because of their rich, religious history, the claims of Paul were particularly challenging for them. The Jews had been designated God’s people since the early Old Testament times, and they spent the next thousand years waiting for the promised Messiah. When Jesus opened the scrolls of Isaiah and claimed to be that fulfillment of the prophesied Messiah, it unleashed a whirlwind of questions. Jesus was not who they expected, and he didn’t liberate them in the ways that they had hoped. Now Paul was here in their Athenian synagogue trying to convince them that Jesus not only was the Messiah, but that he was indeed the pathway to salvation and life.
Next Paul engaged the God-fearing Greeks. The fact that Luke calls them “God-fearing” suggests that they are not spiritually antagonistic in any way – they are genuinely seeking. They already had God in their hearts, but did not have the luxury of having growing up as religious insiders. Therefore their devotion was probably intermixed with a lot of competing and confusing ideas of who exactly Jesus was, and what that meant for their desire to know God (it is, after all, quite confusing for religious outsiders to make sense of the claim that God came embodied as a human being, lived a perfect life, was senselessly executed, rose again, and now sits at the right hand of the throne ruling the world!)
Finally, Paul engaged the the people of the marketplace, which was Roman shorthand for the Athenian Agora. This was the center of the public and business life of the city, and people met there every day to learn the latest news and to discuss/debate all different kind of ideas. John Stott compared the Athenian marketplace to a modern day pub or neighborhood cafe (and I would add Barbershop to that).
The inclusion of this third group is of particular interest to me, as it reminds me a lot of River City, the church I pastor. In V18 Luke says that they were huge debaters, and in V21 says they “spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.” Presumably this exchange of ideas was not primarily about spiritual realities, since Luke already made mention of the Jews and God-fearing Greeks.
Here’s why that’s of particular interest to me. Before River City I worked at Willow Creek, and Willow was amazing at creating a place where nonreligious, spiritually seeking people come safely enter as they searched for God. When I started River City, I assumed/hoped that River City would have this same type of welcoming environment, albeit with the hope that it would include a more diverse, urban crowd.
I think that has happened, which I’m grateful for, but something else happened along the way that was a surprise. We didn’t just reach spiritual seekers searching for God – we reached idea seekers who weren’t necessarily looking for God. That feels very different!
River City is very involved in discussions around a lot of the same topics that drive secular activists (i.e. justice, reconciliation, cultural diversity, community development, etc). These ideas are what draw a lot of people to our church, but even as they come to church, they ironically aren’t always interested in faith (by their own words). This was a new dynamic for me, and it took me a while to find my way in these conversations. How do you engage people who agree with a lot of the same end goals as a faith community, yet aren’t particularly interested in faith?
That is why the encounter with Paul and the people of Athens is of particular interest to me in this season of life. We see an incredibly diverse composition of people at Mars Hill. Each group has their own strengths and weakness, their own questions and challenges, their own perspectives and vantage points. Paul shows both his theological prowess and intercultural competency by finding a way to respect and honor that while also engaging them in serious conversation.
There is no silver bullet that exists when it comes to establishing a faith community that can effectively engage a diverse group of people around the message of Jesus Christ. But Acts 17 is certainly in the small group of prototypes that should be examined for anyone who is serious about doing so.