dialog

An Unknown God

unspalshcom_RLukeman

unspalshcom_RLukeman

Black and white—the epitome of contrast. This contrast may bring various things to mind for you, but what comes to mind for me is the dualistic dilemma we all face. It's a carry-over from the first humans who ate fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (Gen 2:17; 3:1-13).

As a rule, we tend to divide most everything in life into either-or categories—good-bad, right-wrong, big-small, etc. But life isn't that neat and tidy. There's a lot of color within the color spectrum between black and white.

Black is the absence of light and color, whereas white is the presence of light and all colors. Aren't you glad life in this world isn't just black and white?

I'm thankful for all the vivid colors that exist and that life can't be categorized into either-or categories. Neither does God nor His story of redemption fit into neat categories.

A lesson learned

Many years ago I taught a workshop to a group of pastors and leaders in the southern region of the Philippines. I needed the assistance of an interpreter, as I taught them the basics of Inductive Bible Study (IBS).

I tried to emphasize the importance of the biblical text as it's written in black and white. But my interpreter added his own take on what I said with, "It's either black or white."

I learned two important things that day. First, I need to be clear how I say things if I want to be understood. Secondly, I need to have confidence in my interpreter and be sure he or she understands me. True communication results in a fruitful dialog.

Words and ways of connecting

Last week I alluded to ways of sharing the redemptive message of the gospel other than traditional or trendier ways.

My experience as a cross-cultural missionary helped me learn how to teach in a simple yet effective way. I first needed to learn about the people I hoped to teach. This required time, many observations, a lot of listening, prayer, and guidance from the Holy Spirit.

As I gained more insight, I looked for ways to personally connect with those I taught and relate what I taught in words and ways they could understand.

This is what I see the apostle Paul do when he encountered people in a situation different from his typical experiences sharing the gospel.

Reception and resistance

Acts chapter 17 begins with Paul and his ministry team's encounters in Thessalonica (Acts 17:1-9). Paul went to the Jewish synagogue as was is custom. He reasoned with them for three days concerning the purpose for the death of Jesus the Messiah on the cross and His resurrection.

But when the Jews became jealous of those who believed the gospel and began to follow Paul's teaching, things turned rowdy. So they moved on to a town called Berea. Again, Paul went to the Jewish synagogue to explain and prove the gospel from the Scriptures.

The Bereans were honorable men and serious students of the Scriptures (Acts 17:10-12) and received and believed the gospel of Jesus the Messiah. Once again, things turned badly when men from Thessalonica came to stir up trouble for Paul (Acts 17:13-15). So, Paul was sent off to Athens until the rest of his ministry team could join him.

Provoked and challenged

Arriving in Athens, Paul walked around the city and his spirit was disturbed and provoked by what he saw—a city full of idols. He went to the synagogue as usual but also preached in public at the marketplace.

The philosophers in the marketplace thought Paul was preaching about foreign gods because he spoke of the resurrection as he shared the gospel. Wanting to hear more from him they brought him to a place called Mars Hill where much debate took place (Acts 17:16-21).

The context of Paul's message to the Athenians helps us understand how and why he shares what he does (Acts 17:22-31). He speaks to them about the One whom they call "the Unknown God." Paul explains how this God is greater than any manmade image or religion.

A matter of perspective

The message Paul shares with the philosophers at Mars Hill serves as an example for communicating the gospel to people who are not familiar with Christianity or the Jewish Law, so it's well-suited for a postmodern, post-Christian mindset.

How Paul conveys the gospel at Mars Hill has come under fire by various Bible teachers because he doesn't present the gospel in a more typical direct evangelical approach. Some of my friends who are solid Bible teachers say Paul's message wasn't effective because the blood of Jesus and the crucifixion aren't mentioned.

But is this valid criticism? I think not, and nothing in the book of Acts or the NT epistles indicates that is was lacking validity. The problem comes from our own perspective of how it ought to be.

But that's exactly the issue—it's our perspective and doesn't take into account how others hear it. Or, in many cases, how they don't hear it because they have no frame of reference to understand a more direct modern evangelical presentation of the gospel.

Seeing a new perspective

I see 12 elements in Paul's message to the Athenians on Mars Hill where the redemptive message of the gospel is clearly expressed. Next week I'll go through those twelve points with cross-references to support each one.

Until next week, I encourage you to read through Paul's message at Mars Hill (Acts 17:22-31) to see if you can identify these twelve points. Look at the context of the entire chapter (Acts 17). This should help provide the why to how Paul expresses his message.

The goal is not to pick Paul's message apart from a western evangelical perspective but to understand why and how he communicates the gospel the way he does.

Understanding this will provide greater insight for reaching people who don't have a Judean-Christian framework of understanding, whether in America or anywhere in the worldwith any unreached people group.


My interest in Paul's message at Mars Hill was originally stirred through the teaching of my friend Danny Lehman at a missions conference several years ago. He's a long-time and well-traveled missionary who speaks a lot about evangelism and has written quite a bit about it.

I highly recommend his book,  Beautiful Feet– Steps to a Lifestyle of Evangelism, if you're interested in learning how and why to share your faith with others.

A Failure to Communicate

unsplash.com-3gens_LAnderson

unsplash.com-3gens_LAnderson

Communication is vital for many reasons. This isn't just well known, it's obvious. As vital as it is, it's difficult to do well. Language is often a hindrance, but not nearly as much as other common culprits.

Things like pride, arrogance, and stubbornness are major factors in poor communication. This is illustrated well by a short dialog from the 1967 movie Cool Hand Luke. The chain-gang boss Captain says, "What we've got here is... failure to communicate."

The number one most helpful and critical need for good communication is listening well. Marriages fall apart when spouses stop listening to each other. Negotiations break down when either or both sides are only concerned with their own agendas.

Listening well is a skill that requires time and willingness to develop. It's not a means to an end but a way to begin genuine communication.

The number one most helpful and critical need for good communication is listening well

Communication gaps

As new generations emerge a disconnect is common between younger and older generations. It was true when my generation (boomers) came of age, and it's true today.

Typically, each generation blames the other for various and perceived wrongs. The result is the inevitable generation gap. But is a generation gap inevitable or just typical? Either way, it's a gap that can be bridged, but it's a bridge that needs to be built from both sides of the divide.

I've read several articles and posts addressing the departure of millennials from the church. Depending on whose point of view, it's often a list of perceived complaints or criticisms. A lack of listening is a common complaint.

Listening well is a skill that requires time and willingness to develop

Of course, one generation blames the other. And, well, both are right because neither wants to listen to the other. It's like two young boys fighting over the same toy. When an adult intervenes and encourages them to apologize and shake each other's hand, each boy says, "I will if he will."

Part of the solution

No doubt you've heard the cliche, "If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem." When it comes to pursuing the common ground of understanding, listening well is key. It's a gateway to being part of the solution.

Years ago I heard a veteran missionary friend of mine speak on personal evangelism. He used the term hot communication and spoke of the importance of listening. The concept isn't new and it's an acronym with a few different meanings. One explanation I like best is—Honest, Open, Two-way.

Much of the time, communication is one-way or unidirectional. That's called a monolog.

When communication is a two-way street it's called dialog. But the listening part needs to be honest and open to facilitate hot communication, or else it remains cold and likely won't lead to true understanding.

Much of the time, communication is one-way or unidirectional—monolog

Humble enough to listen

My friend Danny also gave the example of Jesus as a twelve-year-old in the Jewish Temple listening to and asking questions of the teachers. Those in the temple were astonished at what He understood and how He answered (Luke 2:46-47). What's astonishing to me is the humility of the Lord.

Paul, in his plea to Philippian believers, also uses the example of Jesus. He reminds these brothers and sisters to have the same mind or attitude as Jesus—

Who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Phil 2:6-8)

Understanding one another, the intended goal of true communication, requires both humility and mutual respect and consideration.

If one generation wants the respect of another, then respect needs to be extended, and it needs to be mutual, not unilateral. This is what people saw in the twelve-year-old Jesus and the one who ate with sinners and healed the poor and hurting.

Understanding one another requires humility, mutual respect, and consideration

Communication failure

I see a communication failure when it comes to reaching the millennials and the next generation with the gospel.

Those of us in older generations can find fault with self-focused younger generations, but this only shows our own lack of humility. We (boomers) were once that self-focused younger generation.

If we refuse to listen and respect those younger than we, we remain just as self-focused but older. Those of us from the Jesus Movement ought to know better. We need to be quick to listen and slow to speak (James 1:19). Too often it's the opposite. 

In my own involvement mentoring people of younger generations, including millennials, listening and observing are essential when working with them.

Next week I want to begin exploring ways to reach younger generations with the gospel, especially those without a Christian frame of reference and those who've walked away from the church.

Listening and observing are essential when working with other generations

Until then...

Are you a good listener? Are you willing to hear more than being heard?

Remember, we were created with two ears and one mouth!