the shape of leadership

Reaching Second-Generation Unbelievers

How to share the good news with the non-religious

Joseph Lear on June 3, 2020

You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears.” This is what the pagan philosophers of Athens said to Paul when he proclaimed to them “foreign gods” in the resurrected Jesus (Acts 17:18-20).

Christians in the West need to acknowledge that, increasingly, our situation is much more like Paul’s in Athens than Peter’s in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost. More and more, we are not preaching to people who know of David and the Psalm Peter quoted to the Pentecost crowd (Acts 2:25-28). We are trying to reach people who may, at best, only have an interest in Christianity because it is exotic — very much like the Athenians who were always interested in hearing something novel (Acts 17:21).

I live in Iowa City, Iowa, home of the University of Iowa Hawkeyes. It is a city known for its progressivism in the Midwest, and it has an increasing number of second- (or third) generation non-Christians. They are people whose parents raised them with no reference to Christianity, let alone conventional religion. How do we reach these typically white, semi-affluent, “non-religious” people?

First, we must dispel the idea that it is possible for someone to be non-religious. Christians and non-Christians alike have bought into a false secular-religious binary. But everyone worships. In Iowa City, the farmer’s market, craft fairs and art festivals all have a tarot card reader. Political campaigners barricade these events forcing everyone to think about what they hope for as they buy vegetables, essential oils, and homemade astrological jewelry. Iowa City is dotted with yard signs that declare “I believe in science.” All of this is religious.

Non-Christians of all sorts have faith, hope and love, though — obviously — not like Christians do. They have faith that the global market and endless consumerism will bring prosperity for all. They have hope that the democratic political process will secure their individual rights. They love themselves (2 Timothy 3:2).

James K.A. Smith has a fantastic book titled You Are What You Love (Brazos, 2016), in which he describes the shopping mall as the Western equivalent to the pagan temples of old. Malls are where we learn to consume, to gratify ourselves, to love ourselves.

Increasingly, our situation is much more like Paul’s in Athens than Peter’s in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost.

The love of self through endless consumption bleeds over into all of life. At the night club, we drink in our own bodies by becoming the cult prostitutes of individual freedom and instant gratification. We say, “This is my body, given for me.”

Perhaps the first thing we ought to say to the non-religious person is what Paul said to the Athenians: “I see that in every way you are very religious” (Acts 17:22). That indeed may be a very strange idea to their ears.

Second, we must practice a generous hospitality. Paul admired the Athenians, which is why he wanted to introduce them to the resurrected Jesus. We need to have a similar relational generosity. Invite people into your home. Prepare a feast for them. If you don’t know how to cook, learn. Share everything generously. Cornelius’ conversion in Acts 10 was a miracle not only because he converted, but also because Peter, a Jew, shared a meal with a Gentile.

I host feasts at my house weekly. Weekly meals at my church, Resurrection Assembly of God, have been the lifeblood of our body. The Bible models for us over and over again that miracles happen when we share a meal with someone. Jesus revealed himself in the breaking of bread (Luke 24:30-31). Why can’t it happen again?

Third, we must be honest. When Paul came to Athens, he came proclaiming Jesus and the resurrection (Acts 17:18). He did not come with door prizes or other cleverly devised marketing techniques. He spoke of things of “first importance.” As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:1-4, Jesus died, was buried and rose again, and all of this was “according to the Scriptures.” Passages like this must become our daily meditation.

As often as we gather at Resurrection Assembly, we confess the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. We invite people to confess their sins and be baptized, that they might die and rise again in Christ. We don’t try to lure people with coffee and snacks. We don’t claim that Christianity will be the perfect supplement to their middle-class aspirations.

In my experience, the “non-religious” respect honesty. They don’t respect bait-and-switch evangelization techniques. Our honesty, however, means we will have to be satisfied even when people reject the gospel, as some did in Athens.

Finally, we must patiently pray. America may increasingly be more Athens than Jerusalem, but one thing the Book of Acts models for us is patient waiting for the Spirit in prayer, no matter the geographical locale.

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2020 edition of Influence magazine.

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