FOR A WHILE IT WAS POPULAR to see Paul's speech in Athens (look it up in Acts 17:22-34) as displaying a soft attitude toward non-Christians, as if reaching out in mission was all about finding common ground with culture. Paul begins, apparently, by praising the Athenians' religion and seems to be suggesting that all they really need is further information about something they already worship.
You wouldn't make that mistake if you knew his audience or could see their faces as he spoke. They felt about the same way as you would if some stranger came to you and said, "You're very religious, aren't you?"
And they are Athenians. Philosophers. Lovers of wisdom. But what does Paul say he likes about these planet-brained boffins? That they admit to being ignorant. Addressing the ancient equivalent of the dons of Oxford or Cambridge, Paul lectures them on the subject of their ignorance.
And in between, rather than congratulating them on worshipping the unknown god, Paul catalogues all the ways their worship is wrong: God doesn't live in a building as they suppose; he does not require tending and service; he is not limited to particular cities or locations; and he is alive, not made of dead stone or precious metals. These objections, it turns out, resemble other Jewish tirades against the folly of idolatry.
To any ancient Athenian, this speech did not represent a soft attitude to their current self-image and spirituality, but a direct attack.
Missionary work is not just about speaking in the language and to the culture of your audience, it's also about challenging their culture and clarifying the differences between their world-view and Christianity. That was true in Athens, it was true in Modernity-ville, and it had better be true in the urban sprawl of Postmodernity as well.
Dr Conrad Gempf is a lecturer in New Testament at London Bible College. He also writes for and edits the monthly webzine there.
© Conrad Gempf 2004