It is a common sight to see a tourist who does not speak the local language stop to ask a person for directions, and the local resident shrugs and stammers, “I … no … speak … English.” What does the tourist do in response? He shouts louder, as if his volume will compensate for his listener’s unfamiliarity with the language.
We often make this same mistake when communicating with those of different faiths. In thinking about communicating the Gospel to such people, let’s look at the Apostle Paul’s address to the Athenians in Acts 17. Three major principles emerge from Paul’s great sermon, which serves as a lesson for us in our ministry to people of other faiths.
You never lighten any load until you feel the pressure in your own soul.
It is impossible for you and me to bear the deafening noise of the world’s heartaches, but there is one place where there is an aggregate, an accumulation, of human suffering–the heart of God. God takes some of those heartaches and funnels them down into the hearts of His servants so that they might sense His burden and proclaim His message. The Scriptures are full of examples of God’s prophets and apostles beholding a depraved situation and overflowing with compassion and a longing to help. Paul at Athens is described as “greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols” (Acts 17:16, NIV). This holy anxiety is an indispensable prerequisite to significant communication.
Make sure you feel what you say when talking to people of other faiths. One way to ensure this is to do what Paul did: See and hear. Acts 17 tells us that before Paul preached, he saw the city and dialogued with the people.
Do we hear the cries of the people? The more and the better we hear them, the more and the better they will hear us. Paul’s compassion in seeing the situation and hearing the cry had a lot to do with his relevant response, which was intensely felt by him before it was felt by the people.
A rigorous religion can be conceived and nurtured in ignorance.
Man cannot escape his spiritual nature, and if he runs from the true God, a thousand false ones are ready to close in on him. Paul struck upon two realities before addressing the Athenians. First, man’s yearning for the divine is a positive step. Second, the varied and intricate systems of worship are not good enough if not undergirded by truth.
By showing sensitivity and tenderness to the Athenians’ search, Paul applauded their bent of mind. For some reason, we evangelicals think it necessary to find nothing good in other beliefs and we go to great lengths to tear them apart, believing thereby that we have vindicated ourselves. I am not suggesting that all religions lead to God, nor am I saying that sincerity and goodness are all that matters in any religion. I firmly believe in the uniqueness of the Christian message and the singularity of the way to heaven by Christ alone. Nonetheless, why do we have to trample underfoot everything that someone else holds dear before we give him the message of Christ?
Maintaining sensitivity, Paul capitalized on his listeners’ vacuum of knowledge. One of the most shocking lessons one learns in countries where culture is interwoven with religion is that living within a certain framework all the time is, in a sense, the surest way to be detached from it. Most Hindus know little about Hinduism. Most Buddhists know little about Buddhism. Religion is much more a culture to most people than it is a carefully thought-through system of truth.
Paul had before him a city of “seekers after God,” but it was a city of people who were bankrupt of truth. How did he meet the challenge? It was the allusion to their own poet that struck home. We must direct people in such a way as to open them up within their own assumptions–”as one of your own poets has said.” To force a person to think within his own assumptions is a powerful way of opening him to the Gospel.
In communicating across vast barriers of sin, religion, culture and language, if the message is to get through, a person must be forced to realize that what he really believes is generally what he wants to believe; the truth has never even entered the picture. The use of illustration, whether it be in the form of parable, anecdote, quotation, question, personal experience or any such symbol, can be one of the most effective means of transmitting truth.
Paul’s thinking is clear: He is forcing the Athenians to think within their own assumptions, moving them from what they know and believe to what they don’t know and what they disbelieve. The conclusion is inescapable: “What you now believe may be good, but it’s not good enough.”
Christianity is not a religion or perspective; it is God’s self-disclosure in Christ.
Paul strove ardently to drive this point home. The crowd had gathered to hear what this “babbler” was saying. “What is this new religion this man preaches?” But our message points to the Person and work of Jesus Christ. The ultimate question is not “What is the answer?” It is “Who will answer?”
The cry of everyone’s heart is for a Savior, a Champion, a personal Redeemer. It was this Redeemer that Paul presented. He said, “Therefore, since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone–an image made by man’s design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:29-31, NIV). The Person and power of Christ! The awesome message we have, and the tremendous power we have access to–that is our hope. And it is this Christ and this power that goes with us as we present the truth.
The ministry of Paul becomes an excellent blueprint for us. At great personal cost, risking ridicule and failure, he took the Gospel to those at Athens. His sensitivities, his well-prepared address and his personal sacrifice ought to draw out of us an equal commitment in our day. Thus, sensing the great pressure in our own souls, recognizing the worship of masses of people in great ignorance, we present the Person and power of Christ to our generation. It seems terribly simple, doesn’t it? Yet the battle is a spiritual one, and thankfully the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty through God to pull down enemy strongholds. God will use His means through us to accomplish this task.