Learn About/Subscribe:
Christian Union
July 1, 2019
Scott Crosby
Ministry Director,
Christian Union New York City
Christian Union Washington, DC 

Athens in Paul’s time was no longer a politically important city.  Greece had given way to Rome, and its political influence had declined through the centuries. It was, however, still the intellectual center of the world. This city was heir to the great philosophers who set the standards and patterns of thought: Socrates, Plato, Epicurus, and Pericles.

After hearing about Athens all his life Paul, the academic and now the apostle, is finally there—a city intellectually and culturally sophisticated but morally decadent and spiritually dead—in spite of having, according to some accounts, up to 30,000 statues of gods.

No wonder they had a statue to “the unknown god!”

In Acts 17, verse 21 shows an interesting parallel to our own time – it seems the greatest pastime was in “hearing and telling something new.” Athenians were the ultimate practitioners of “diversity” and “tolerance,” and truth was something very relative and general to them.

Paul’s response and engagement

1. Observation of the culture – Paul was offended by the decadence, but this led to observation and insight rather than self-righteousness.

2. Point of commonality – their desire to worship.  The Athenians pursued worship to such a degree that after erecting gods for all kinds of specific things they finally made one to the “unknown god.”  They wanted to cover all possibilities because worship was important.

3. People’s search for God is often rooted in fear—the desire to placate.  Paul urges them to reconsider that—that God created the world and does not need man.  Rather, God desires man to know Him, the Author and Creator of life, in which is all fulfillment.

Key Points

Paul observes, he learns, he finds common ground through which to engage.  He subsequently makes a significant difference in the most unlikely culture—a culture that parallels ours today in many ways.

1. Major urban centers are intellectual and cultural centers.  People are both curious and influential.

2.  It is right that we should be offended at the idolatry and godlessness in these places, but this should lead us toward engagement, not rejection.

3. Where is our common ground from which to make the Gospel known? Common ground is what gives the message what Boston University professor, Peter Berger, calls plausibility, the element that permits something to make sense.

I spent a number of years in the ’80s and ’90s in China.  As a Christian, making friends included sharing all parts of my life, faith included.  At the time in the United States, the Four Spiritual Laws was a helpful tool for explaining the Gospel and making it personal. In China, however, this was not immediately the case.

“God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life” made no sense to my new friends because they had no cultural concept of a personal, loving God.  Their concept of “God” was closer to that of the ancient Greeks and not at all like God as we understand. A personal, loving God simply wasn’t a plausible idea; it wasn’t an idea that made sense and could be acted upon.

Like Paul, I had to build plausibility—find a starting point that both my friend and I had in common and build from there.   

Today many of us are faced with a similar situation as Paul as we live and communicate the Gospel in a pluralist society.  It is helpful to consider Paul’s example of observing, engaging and finding common ground.  From there we not only understand more of God’s heart toward us, but find ourselves more fully in God’s redemptive process in the world around us.

scott crosbyScott Crosby is the Ministry Director for Christian Union New York City and Christian Union Washington, DC. 

Scott is a graduate of The American University in Washington, DC. During 30 years of residence in Asia, he worked in diverse areas of the arts, publishing and missions.

Scott established a gallery for Chinese contemporary art in Shanghai, as well as models of urban ministry in some of Asia's global cities.

In 2010, Scott returned to the US to establish the New City Commons Foundation to work with churches and networks in developing sustainable and effective models of Christian engagement of culture.

Scott and his family have travelled extensively and are on a perpetual quest to locate new sources of authentic Chinese cuisine.
Subscribe Today
Sharpen your worldview via our biweekly eNewsletter containing great articles (from CU and around the web).