How Can We Talk to a Skeptical Culture?

Lessons from the apostle Paul in Athens

The apostle Paul faced a big challenge. He was in Athens, the city in which Socrates and Plato had philosophized nearly 500 years earlier. Now this Christian missionary had come to town with a different doctrine, and he was summoned to explain himself before the council of philosophers.

Paul was a well-trained Jewish scholar, accustomed to preaching in synagogues from the Hebrew Scriptures about the promised Messiah. But those biblical arguments would mean nothing to these philosophical watchdogs. He had to find a new way to deliver his message.

A similar challenge confronts us as we share our message with a new generation, many of whom are skeptical about the Bible, opposed to it, or unaware of its teachings. We can preach the “Romans Road” and quote Scripture verses to prove the Bible is true, but will that approach mean anything to this new audience?

We might learn from Paul’s strategy.

1. He paid attention.

Paul went for a walk. He examined the culture around him. And he found something amazing.

A shrine for the worship of “an unknown god.”

For a communicator seeking a connection, this was a treasure. As Paul announced to the council, “This God, whom you worship without knowing, is the one I’m telling you about” (Acts 17:23 NLT).

What are the “unknown gods” of our culture? Perhaps every cell phone, every sports car, every romantic movie is such a shrine. What are people reaching out for? What fulfillment do they seek?

2. He affirmed their searching.

Growing up with the King James Version of the Bible, in which Paul scolded the Athenians for being “superstitious,” I heard numerous sermons bewailing the ignorance of Christless culture.

But the word Paul used in Acts 17:22 is not necessarily so negative. Modern translations have Paul saying, “I see that in every way you Athenians are very religious” (GNT). Later in his speech, the apostle favorably quoted poets his hearers were familiar with. These lines contained very general theology—God as the ground of being, humans as children of God—and Paul used this line of thinking to urge his hearers forward, out of idolatry and into a deeper knowledge of a real God who wanted to be known.

This is not like quoting a pop song so you seem cool enough to listen to. Paul was affirming the voices of those from that culture who were genuinely reaching out for God. We have such voices in our own culture as well.

3. He zeroed in on Jesus.

It was good for the Athenians to think of themselves as offspring of a divine force that was all around them, but there was much more to discover. And Paul brought his argument to a very specific point—Jesus. God would “judge the whole world” through this “chosen” man, and he proved it by “raising that man from death!” (Acts 17:31 GNT).

This incited some mockery, but it also drew some genuine curiosity. We can expect the same range of response to a Christ-centered message today. We might be tempted to stay at the level of vague philosophical niceties in an attempt to ensure universal acceptance of our message. Or we might choose from an assortment of biblical material—rules and traditions and words of wisdom. But Paul strategically focused on Jesus as the culmination of the story of this unknown but knowable God.

When people don’t want to listen, you don’t gain a hearing merely by talking louder. Too often we have taken that approach in dealing with our skeptical culture. The apostle Paul used some agility in devising a communication strategy that fit his Athenian audience. In our current situation, we can do the same.

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Randy Petersen
Randy Petersen

Randy Petersen is Director of Scripture Engagement Content for American Bible Society. Writer of more than sixty books and hundreds of church curriculum lessons, he has also served churches as a Bible teacher, small-groups coordinator, drama director, preaching consultant and softball pitcher.

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