Singing the same song to a different tune (or – Variegated Approaches to Apostolic Evangelism in Acts!)

Yesterday morning I found myself standing in front of a congregation where we sang an old hymn (which I had sung before, though some of the words had been modernised) to a tune which I did not know. Someone assured me afterwards that if I had been around a certain other denomination a bit more I would have known the tune.

This is actually not going to be a post about music (the alternative title gives a clue). It’s about evangelism.

After the hymn incident I went on to preach about what happened when Paul took the gospel to Athens. It occupies about half of Acts 17. I have blogged earlier this year on the question that some people have raised about whether Paul made a mistake at Athens. For what it’s worth you can read it here.

Here are three reflections on Paul’s evangelism in Acts that I think are highlighted in the Athens episode.

  1. Paul was not limited to one audience. Reading Acts, you come to expect that the first port of call for the apostolic evangelists would be the local synagogue. The gospel was ‘for the Jew first’ and logically it made a lot of sense to start with the Jewish community in a new city. They had the Scriptures. They knew the stories and were aware of the hopes and the promises. Evangelism meant telling them that these hopes and promises had been fulfilled in Jesus. However, while there was a synagogue at Athens, Paul did not confine himself to its Jewish congregation. In fact, he ended up speaking to a mix of idolators and representatives of a couple of different philosophical schools. He was not limited to one audience.
  2. Paul was not confined to one setting. Paul did not just talk about Jesus in the synagogue: he talked about him in the marketplace, as long as someone would listen. He talked about him in the presence of the Areopagus. Elsewhere in Acts he shares the gospel in a prison, in an audience with a government official, and in his own house.
  3. Paul was not restricted to one approach. His approach in what Luke records of his Areopagus speech is quite different from the kind of approach he tended to take in a synagogue. He still arrives at Jesus (and the resurrection), but the starting point is different and the way points are somewhat different too. There was no need to quote Greek poets in the Jewish synagogue, and his Greek audience would hardly have been overly familiar with the stories of Abraham and David.

All this to suggest that Paul knew how to sing the same song (the gospel) to a different tune. Which is why we should be grateful for innovative resources, media, courses that allow the 21st century church to embrace a range of approaches, in a variety of settings, in order to reach all kinds of people.

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