This year I have been writing about the character traits and skills of effective missional community leaders. I wrote about missional leaders being proactive, hospitable, generous, available, attentive, persevering, holy, and kind. This post will look at how missional leaders are culturally aware. To do so, I will be referencing Paul’s mission to Athens in Acts 17.
While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.
For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship…
As some of your own poets have said…
Missional leaders are culturally sensitive in that they are able to see the idolatry of their people group. Paul walked around the town, he carefully observed the things that they worshiped, and he read their literature. In doing so, he came to understand the idols of their land.
Missional leaders study their culture. They read books, listen to music, watch movies, listen to conversations, observe peoples’ practices and priorities. They don’t consume these things for entertainment, but do so in order to discover the ideologies of the people they are seeking to reach.
So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean.” (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)
Look at all the different people Paul met. He learned more about the culture by meeting different kinds of people. He met them in their religious space and their marketplace. Paul bounced around town befriending various people groups in order to get a better feel of the spiritual climate of Athens.
Missional leaders do the same. They make friends with a diverse group of people to understand the culture at large in addition to the many various cultures within a city. They get together with different types of people and ask them about their spiritual beliefs. In turn, like happened with Paul, they are invited to share about their own spiritual beliefs too.
Starting Where They Are
Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.
As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’ “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 human design and skill.
Having studied the culture, Paul was able to find inroads to share the gospel beginning with the very beliefs of the Athenians. He noticed their belief in an “unknown god,” and used that small crack in a door to say, “Let me tell you about Him.” He even quoted from one of their poets that believed in creation, and used that small crack in the door to say, “If God is our creator, why are you creating gods yourself?”
Missional leaders don’t start by bashing the false beliefs of their new friends. Instead, having studied their culture, they find where there is common ground and use the similar beliefs as a launching point to share the gospel in full. They are easily able to start spiritual conversations because they know where there are shared believes and where there are contradictory believes.
Justin Christopher is the National Campus Director for Campus Renewal Ministries and the author of Campus Renewal: A Practical Plan for Uniting Campus Ministries in Prayer and Mission. He facilitates CRM’s Partnering Campus Network and also gives leadership to the Campus House of Prayer and the missional community movement at the University of Texas.