Last week I quoted Richard Leonard when he said, "We cannot speak to a culture we do not know or one we despise." There has been quite a discussion going in the comments of that post about whether Paul was actually desiring to be relevant in Acts 17.
It brought to mind an article I wrote last month that was included in the Innovate conference notebook. I thought it might help the discussion along...
Tim Stevens, Sep 9, 2007
Bible passages from The Message paraphrase
“Your church is so shallow.”
“Your pastor doesn’t preach the truth—he just tells people what they want to hear.”
“Aren’t we supposed to be separate from the world?”
I’ve heard these statements (and others with harsher words) hundreds of times through the years. Churches that are doing what we are have taken some heat from other Christians. We do a series around The Office or Lost or Spider Man, and we are called shallow. We are accused of lying in bed with the world. Of not being separate. Of tickling people’s ears. Honestly, I think it is a valid concern. The questions are worth asking. How can we mix ourselves with the world and still communicate an unpolluted message? Is there any biblical basis for what we are doing?
Good questions, and you don’t need to look any further than Acts 17 to find some answers. Paul had an opportunity to talk to some unchurched VIP’s—and don’t you think his mind was racing, trying to determine the best way to reach them? What would pierce the hardness of their hearts?
Paul was a genius. He chose to speak their language. He saw they were searching for answers but looking in the wrong places. So he got their attention immediately by talking about something they were all familiar with—one of their icons, one of the popular images of the day. He used that image to say, “You are searching. You are longing to know a higher being. Let me tell you about this God you seek…” Later on he quoted from one of the popular poets of the day, again using their language to teach the Gospel.
Paul was in a foreign culture, and he knew he had to speak the language of the people if they were going to understand. He was able to interpret the longings of their hearts that was evident in their art.
Our situation is similar to Paul’s. In many ways, we live in a foreign culture. To be effective, we must learn a different language. We must understand its icons and values. We can learn much from Paul’s experience:
Don’t condemn people for their icons. Paul was troubled by the Athenians’ idols, but he didn’t walk in and begin railing against them for having false gods. When you’re talking to the lost about Jesus, you won’t endear yourself to them by telling them their music is bad, their movies are evil, and their books are smutty. Their next step is not to give those things up; it is to experience the life-changing grace of Jesus Christ.
Help people interpret their culture. There is so much that is exciting in today’s culture! More than ever before we are watching shows on TV that sincerely explore the spiritual questions our culture is asking. We are listening to songs from mainstream bands like Nickelback, U2, Foo Fighters and Linkin Park, and observing the spiritual journey that is revealed in their lyrics. And the movies of today chronicle the deepest desires of our society—a desire to love and to be loved.
Like Paul, we can capitalize on the “poets” of our day to create spiritual conversations pointing toward God. When we hear about a show or movie or song that is at the top of the charts, we can ask, “What is it that is capturing the hearts of our culture? What are the themes that people are connecting to? What felt need does it reveal?”
And the next time someone accuses you of being shallow, you might just smile, walk away, and continue figuring out ways to connect to a society that largely speaks this language called pop culture.