I have said it many times, but as usual Phil Johnson over at the Pyros said it much better than I ever did, so instead of talking about this myself, I’ll let Phil explain it. He’s making a point about Paul and his sermon on Mars Hill, and how some types latch on to that to rationalize any crazy idea in the name of contextualization of the gospel.
Take it away Phil…
In Acts 17, Paul preaches to the intellectual elite of Athens. The narrative includes one of the classic examples of New Testament gospel-preaching. It shows us the apostolic evangelistic strategy in action. It’s an especially helpful example of how to confront false religion, philosophy, and elitism in an evangelistic setting. And it takes place in a highbrow academic environment.
It’s one of the best-known portions of the book of Acts, but it’s also one of the most-abused sections in all of Scripture. It’s a favorite passage for those who insist if we’re not finding (or creating) as much common ground as possible between church and culture we are not properly contextualizing the gospel.
People who are enthralled with style-driven missional strategies almost always single out this famous account.
“Paul blended into the culture,” they say. “He adopted the worldview and communications style of his hearers. He observed their religion and listened to their beliefs and learned from them before he tried to teach them. And he didn’t step on their toes by refuting what they believed. Instead, he took their idea of the unknown god, embraced that, and used it as the starting point for his message about Christ.
And there you have some of the major elements of postmodern missional ministry: culture, contextualization, conversation, and charitableness.
I think if we look at this passage carefully in its context, what we’ll see is that Paul used none of those strategies-at least not in the way they have been defined and packaged by most today’s postmodern, Emergent, and missional trend-setters.
Paul was bold and plain-spoken. He was counter-cultural, confrontive, confident, and (by Athenian standards, much less today’s standards) closed-minded. He offended a significant number of Athens’s intellectual elite, and he walked away from that encounter without winning the admiration of society at large, but with just a small group of converts who followed him.
That is the biblical approach to ministry. You don’t measure its success or failure by how pleased the crowd is at the end of the meeting. Our first concern ought to be the clarity and power with which the message is delivered.
The right question to ask is not how many people received the message warmly. (It’s nice if they do, but that’s not usually the majority response.)
The right question to ask is whether the signs of conviction are seen in those who have heard.
And sometimes a forceful negative reaction is the result of the gospel’s convicting aspects. In fact, when unbelievers walk away without repenting of sin and embracing Christ, an overtly hostile reaction is a much better indication that the message was delivered clearly and accurately than a round of applause and an outpouring of good feeling from a crowd of appreciative worldlings.
We need to remember that. We’re tempted to think that when people reject the gospel it’s because we have done a poor job of presenting it. Sometimes that may be true, but it’s not necessarily true. Of course, our job is to be as clear and accurate as possible, and not to be a stumbling-block that keeps people from hearing the gospel.
But the gospel itself is a stumbling-block for unbelievers, so people will stumble and even get angry when they are presented with it.
And we have no right to try to reshape the gospel so that it’s no longer a stumbling-block. You can’t proclaim the gospel faithfully if your goal is for no one ever to be offended or upset by it.
We could learn a lot from what Jesus did in John 6. That chapter begins with this in verse 2: “Then a great multitude followed Him, because they saw His signs which He performed on those who were diseased.” They liked it when He did miracles, but they didn’t want His message.
He preached to them anyway, and at the end of the chapter (v. 66), John writes: “From that time many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more.” And then while the crowd was diminishing to almost nothing, Jesus turned to the twelve and said, “Do you also want to go away?” (v. 67). And then in verse 70, He added, “Did I not choose you, the twelve, and one of you is a devil?”
In the face of a mass exodus of His disciples, Jesus was not concerned about doing what He could to seem more “likable.” He pressed the message with more clarity and more candor than ever.
That’s exactly what Paul does in Acts 17. His strategy was about as far as possible from the postmodernized approach that drives so much of the contemporary evangelical church’s outreach efforts.
Read if for yourself.