I recently saw a question about apologetic related resources for a clear Gospel presentation. My immediate reaction was: How do you have one Gospel presentation that fits everyone from the atheist to the Muslim to the nominal Christian? I know there are evangelism programs out there that are designed as a simple presentation to be used with any person. I am skeptical of their usefulness. So do we just give up? Or do we stay unprepared and trust that God will give us all the words? Prayer is important but there is a place for us to be developing our skills. I see the best pattern as being Paul’s experience in Athens in Acts 17.
“Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, “What does this babbler wish to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities”—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.” Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new. So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man,nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for “‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, “‘For we are indeed his offspring.’ Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.” So Paul went out from their midst. But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.” (Acts 17:16–34 ESV)
I am not going to develop this into a pre-packaged system but I will make some observations.
1. Notice that Paul was offended by the idolatry he saw. Making connections does not mean we must be accepting of all things. The key was that Paul did not let that offence drive his conversation.
2. Paul begins by speaking to those he had most in common with. He did not stay there, but used that as a way of expanding his circle.
3. Paul responded to questions. Although he approached the synagogue, he was asked to come to the Areopagus. Remember that 1 Peter 3:15 does not say be aggressive with those not interested, but be ready for those who ask.
4. Paul saw the best in his audience. Even though they were worshipping false gods, he saw that they were at least religious. Everyone has something good for us to respect.
5. We find that Paul took the time to tour the city and find out what they actually believed. Don’t assume you know what a Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness believes. Do some research and make sure to listen to adherents of other faiths.
6. Paul knew enough about their beliefs to quote some of their authors. Don’t be afraid to read the Qur’an or Book of Mormon or Richard Dawkins.
7. Paul started where they had the most in common, that is as people created somehow to live in this world. Find those common areas and build a bridge there.
8. Paul does not quote Scripture to these people who were ignorant of the Hebrew Bible. Don’t quote the Bible to unchurched people and expect them to be impressed the way your church friends are. Speak biblical truth, but don’t assume knowledge or understanding of the Bible.
9. Paul stays very focused. He does not go off on every side issue or obscure doctrine. He only talks about the basics: that God is real and that he has done something to make himself known.
10. Paul does not share as much as we would expect. At the Areopagus, Paul does not mention Jesus by name (just as the man appointed by God) and does not mention the cross (although he does the resurrection). We can feel the pressure to get the whole story across in one conversation. It seems as if Paul just wants to move them closer to the real God and that he is successful as a number of people desired to know more. Be happy to get the person closer to the truth and don’t feel the need to get the person converted, baptized and discipled all in one conversation.
As I said, this is not an evangelism plan. It is simply ten observations of the deeds of a man who was pretty good at sharing his faith. There is much that we can learn from Paul.