In The Unlikely Disciple, Brown student and unbeliever Kevin Roose spends a semester at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. As part of his immersion into the Liberty experience the author attends a spring-break missionary trip to Daytona Beach, Florida, where he records the following conversation . . .
Claire’s [his evangelism mentor] other problem is total linguistic isolation. She, like many other Liberty students, speaks in long, flowery strings of opaque Christian speak. When a twenty-something guy named Rick tells Claire he doesn’t believe in God, Claire sighs and says, “Listen, Rick. There’s a man named Jesus Christ, and he came into my heart and changed me radically. And there’s a God who loves you, and who sent his son to die on the cross for you, to take away your sins and my sins, and God shows himself to me every day. When I don’t have hope for tomorrow, Jesus never fails. His love is never ending.”
While she’s speaking, my eyes never leave Rick. I recognize his confused expression as what mine must have been on my first ever visit to Thomas Road [Baptist Church]—the same sense that two people, both speaking English, are not exactly communicating. Rick listens to her prattle on for several minutes, and then apologizes.
“Not interested,” he says. “But thanks.”
Claire thanks Rick and walks away downtrodden, kicking up sand with each step.
Claire’s lingo, and her hearers’ subsequent befuddlement, is all-to-common. Often the words and phrases that we use are unintelligible to the unchurched, causing our message to fall on deaf ears. Since we are called to be ambassadors of Christ (2 Cor. 5:20), we must take great care to represent Him well; this includes our verbal representation—especially when communicating the gospel.
- Acts 7
Acts 7 records Stephen’s defense (apology) before the Sanhedrin. Stephen is brought before the council due to a charge of blasphemy (Acts 6:11). But instead of answering the charge, Stephan rehearses Israel’s history from Abraham to Christ. The reason he argued this way was not to acquit himself, but to show them their sin, especially the sin of betraying and murdering the Righteous One (vrs. 52), and the sins of their fathers.
- Acts 17
In Acts 17 we find Paul in Athens being provoked by the Spirit because the city was given over to idols. Paul responded by . . .
. . . reasoning in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Gentiles, and in the market place every day with those who happened to be present.
Some of those with whom he was reasoning (arguing) were Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. They invited him to the Areopagus (Mars Hill) to hear him further. Seizing the opportunity, Paul, beginning with creation, provides a step-by-step argument for Christ and the coming judgment.
Consider Your Audience
In Acts 7, Stephen is providing an argument to the biblically informed. While in the Areopagus address of Acts 17, Paul is providing an argument to the uninformed. The manner in which they argue differs because the audience differs.
- The Churched
In Acts 7 Stephen is talking to those who have been brought-up in the teaching of the Old Testament their whole lives. Therefore, it was appropriate for him to use the language of the “church.” When Stephan spoke of the promise to Abraham, or the covenant of circumcision, or of the Angel of the Lord, they understood what he meant—they spoke the same “language.”
- The Unchurched
When addressing the Athenians, if Paul would have started with Abraham and then moved on to covenants and sacrifices, he would have lost his audience—the message would not have gotten through. Instead, because of the audience, Paul established a point of contact (TO THE UNKNOWN GOD). Then, beginning with God’s creation of heaven and earth, he proclaimed the true God and the upcoming judgment (i.e., here’s who God is, and here’s where you stand).
The Western World today is very different from what it was in the past. Preachers of old could rely on the fact that just about everyone had some experience with the church. We cannot make that assumption today. Therefore, we must tailor—not water down—our message, and present it in a way that is understandable to our audience.