MISSIONS and OUTREACH
The message that the apostle Paul preached to the Greeks on Mars Hill (Acts chapter 17) is a prototype for how outreach is best carried out.
In the book of Acts, there were many outreach sermons preached, and there were many who accepted the truths preached and turned to the Lord. But when the message was preached to a non-Jewish audience the results were not so good. In Athens, the apostle Paul was distressed by their idolatry (Acts 17:16). So he spoke to them about Jesus and the resurrection (Acts 17:18). Some thought he was a babbler, just speaking nonsense. Others apparently thought he was talking about two foreign gods, Jesus and Anastasia (the word in Greek for resurrection is also a woman’s name).
Paul very quickly made adjustments to his message. He must have realised that what worked well in the Jewish context was not appropriate with a Greek audience. These people did not have the scriptures. They did not understand about a holy God, who man must approach through sacrifice. They did not understand that death came as the result of sin, and could be undone if God so willed.
It is very instructive to see Paul’s approach: What he did and what he did not do:
- He found a staring point to use as a connection – the Unknown God (Acts 17:23.).
- He did not quote the Bible to them, because it carried no weight with them.
- He did quote from their own pagan literature (Epimenides, Aratus.) where it contained some measure of truth (Acts 17:28).
- He must therefore have done some homework.
- Although not quoting the Bible, he presented a biblical world-view (Acts 17:26).
- He did not treat them disrespectfully.
- He was very clear in condemning their idolatry (Acts 17:29) because this was a big problem in the Greek situation.
- He finally came around to speaking about Jesus’ resurrection and how it was significant (Acts 17:31).
So when it comes to outreach, our approach must be tailored to suit our audience:
There is a thought that Paul made a mistake here: He failed to preach about Jesus and his sacrificial death. That’s why results were poor on this occasion. But this is not so. The real reason is that he was addressing a non-Jewish audience.
Paul had an advantage here over modern outreach: Since Judaism is not an evangelising religion, Paul would not have been given incorrect teaching on the right way to go about outreach. He could be flexible, having no preconceived ideas on the subject.
Missionary societies have learned the lesson well. It is imperative to find out what this foreign religion teaches. Particularly where it differs from Christianity, and why Christianity is preferable. It may take years for our missionaries to come to the point of finding all this out. And when a new missionary is sent out onto the field, the new man or woman needs to thoroughly understand all that has been learned up to that point so that they can take over from there, to “hit the ground running”.
Good missionaries will also realise the best thing they can do is work themselves out of a job: In other words when they have made a handful of converts the best thing is to trust the new converts to communicate biblical truths to their fellows. They will find it much easier than the foreign missionaries to identify with their own people and speak on the issues they themselves found relevant.
When we seek to do outreach locally we should follow the principles set out above. In order to do successful outreach in our own culture and environment, there are important lessons we can learn from how Paul dealt with the situation in Athens, and how overseas missions work.
We first need to identify clearly the religion or religions we want to address. There are of course, many religions in our multi-cultural society that we might like to address.
In addressing the major religions we face, there are obvious factors we need to take into account in our discussions with them. The following thoughts are a starting point: –
Up until about the middle of the twentieth century we had an approach that got good results. There were the Four Spiritual Laws, and the Roman Road. We could say to people, “If you were to die tonight, and God asked you why he should let you into heaven, what answer would you give?” At that time most people had respect for the scriptures, they believed in life after death as well as heaven and hell. Then on seeing certain key Bible verses they may well have been convicted of their own sinfulness, and their need to make a decision for Christ. But today, that approach achieves few results because people generally do not believe in heaven and hell, and have little regard for the Bible. There are clearly some people who still have respect for the biblical world view, but it is a dwindling minority.
Secular humanism maintains that man came about by a purely naturalistic evolutionary process. We are nothing more that a bunch of chemicals, and no life after death is possible. There is no supernatural realm and certainly no creator God, so miracles are impossible. The Bible is therefore a load of nonsense. It should be attacked vigorously or, at best, be ignored. Most people in western nations have been impacted by this atheistic religion. We need to show them the Bible is true. In particular, that design in nature requires a Designer; that there is no such thing as a simple cell; that Charles Darwin thought the fossils were a big problem for his theory; etc. There is a wealth of material on this subject available on the web site creation.com
In one way the apostle Paul had an advantage over modern church leaders: It was obvious the Greeks were following a false religion because of their idolatry. But the church today is very slow in recognising Secular Humanism as a religion that needs to be confronted. Either death came as a result of Adam’s sin, as the Bible indicates, or death is part of the evolutionary process that brought mankind into existence. Both cannot be true. It is extremely difficult to start any sort of dialogue with this religion. That there is no creator god; that man is purely a product of evolutionary processes etc., are articles of its religious dogma. The Humanist Manifestos I, II and III are available on the web site americanhumanist.org and other places.
Muslims are taught from the Koran that the Bible was good but it has been corrupted, so should be rejected. The Koran teaches that Jesus was a prophet of God, but nothing more, and he didn’t die on the cross. Muslims are also taught that Christianity offers cheap salvation: All one has to do is recite a fixed formula and one’s eternal life is secured, there is no need to pursue a holy life. We need to do a lot of homework to have a level playing field, because the Koran teaches Muslims why Islam is superior to Christianity. Samuel Green has been involved in very successful work in this area. He has written books and has videos available on YouTube.
Aboriginal spirituality majors on spirits. It is necessary to appease the spirits by smoking ceremonies, etc., and it would not do to dam a stream or chop down a tree for fear of offending the spirits. Christian missionaries have in the past come against such ideas by claiming “I am not going to follow that practice. I don’t need to cater to the spirits. Jesus will protect me”. Outreach to the original Australians is made difficult because they see Christianity as being responsible for the stolen generation, and for an “invasion” of Australia starting with Captain Cook. These barriers need to be overcome as a means toward dialogue.
Communicating the gospel to Jewish people today is made very difficult as a result of 2000 years of Christian antisemitism. Thousands of Jews were massacred by the crusaders. (This is not taught to Christians, but is a painful fact to the Jewish people). The church found many other ways to humiliate them. The Nazis learned many lessons from the antisemitic ideas the Christian church had invented. Support for the state of Israel is one way we can begin to address the barriers we face.
Existentialism, New Age and Post Modernism:
These new religions are covered in the book “The Universe Next Door” by James W. Sire. In Existentialism it is understood that everything is meaningless. So one must try to fashion meaning for himself. The religion called “New Age” draws on eastern mysticism. Adherents can choose what they want to believe to a large extent, but two basic factors seem to be Kama and reincarnation. The actress Shirley Maclean would be the most famous promoter of this religion. One characteristic of the religion of “post Modernism” is that there is no such thing as absolute truth. You are entitled to believe your truth, but don’t try to force it on me. My truth is different.
There are other religions we haven’t even mentioned. Buddhism, Hinduism, Baha’i, Sikhism and Jediism (from the Star Wars franchise) all have followings.