Religion A La Carte

By Josh Butler

(Josh Butler is a friend of mine who received his degree at Bob Jones University at the same time that I did.  He is currently receiving a Master’s Degree at Faith Baptist in Iowa.  This article is a paper that he recently submited on the topic of evangelism and culture). 

Benjamin grew up Catholic.  In his younger years he regularly attended Mass but ever since he graduated from high school and moved out for college he has only stepped into a church for three weddings, a baptism, and his cousin’s funeral.  It was in his college years that his church attendance disintegrated.  After learning in Biology class about evolution he has been skeptical about creation as an explanation for the origin of the universe.  It was Benjamin’s Religion professor who radically changed his view of church. 

In a class discussion his teacher had said, “Why does one have to go to church to worship God.  Worship can be done just as well, if not better, at home than with a bunch of coughing sneezing annoying people around you to distract you.”     He no longer believes exclusively in one religion.  Recently when speaking to a friend he said, “I think that one religion is just as good as any other.  Why does a person have to choose just one religion?  Why can’t they all be true?” 

Ben has had a curiosity with spirits and mysticism of late.  After watching Sylvia Browne on a talk show he went to Borders and bought a book about ghosts and read it cover to cover in one sitting.  His friend Shelly told him about Wicca and he attended some of their meetings.  He liked the people that he met and wants to read up on their religion.  Ben has adopted a lot of things that he likes from a lot of different belief systems.  He has done this so much that if anyone ever asks him about his religion he calls himself a religious Platypus.  Benjamin is a fictitious character but not too far from the truth.  He represents a current characteristic of the mindset of today’s society: religious multiplicity.  He echoes the views of a blogger who recently wrote,  

Just suppose we chose restaurants the way we choose religions. What would it mean if we would only dine at a McDonalds or a Wendy’s? Even if we up scaled our dining choice to say, Applebee’s, would it be good for us to eat off the same menu all the time? But that’s what many of us do with our spiritual life… it’s time for us to stop shopping inside our insular religious communities and to check out other faiths to see if they ring truer. But why stop there? It is likely that no one faith can really speak to us. So I propose we build our religions piecemeal.[i]   

It is this kind of thought pattern that has caused some to take notice of the similarities between today’s post-modern culture and the culture of the first century.  One person who has brought up these similarities is Hans-Josef Klauck who wrote,  

After the long phase of western Christendom with its relatively uniform culture, we now have the possibility of standing afresh in a situation that was a matter of everyday living for the first Christian generations.  At the beginning, Christian faith had to assert itself among the rival religious views which literally competed with one another on the market-place for the favour of the public.  We should make better use of the hermeneutical potential implicit in this analogy between the two situations, employing it to attain a deeper understanding both of earliest Christianity and of our own contemporary religious situation.

There is a famous saying which states that history often repeats itself; in comparing the Post-modern culture with the first century, this saying rings true.  However, even though  the first Christians faced the same obstacle of religious multiplicity that the church faces today, they were able to spread a new religion from one end of the Mediterranean Sea to the whole of the Roman world in as little as 300 years.  How did they do it?  How can the church obtain first century results in the twenty-first century?  What were the methods they used to spread the gospel?   

Match the Hatch 

One of the methods that the early Christians used to spread the gospel is one which modern-day fishermen call matching the hatch.  This phrase is one which fly-fisherman use when talking about the importance of bait selection.  The trick in fishing is to deceive the fish into thinking that the bait on your line is the real thing.  Trout are extremely particular in their eating habits.  For the most part, they eat only those insects which are currently hatching.  The successful fisherman knows which insects are hatching at what time and selects his bait to match those insects.  One fly fishing expert said this, “The most important advice to learning how to match the hatch and catch the trout is simple: Observe.”[iii] 

These words of advice describe the way in which the early church preached the gospel.  In reading Luke’s historical account of the early church one cannot help but notice the different sermons that he records.  Of particular interest are the differences in the content of each sermon.  Some of the speeches listed are broad and all encompassing, while others are specific in nature.  In comparing and contrasting the speeches found in Acts one cannot help but notice that there were different audiences present in each situation.  Much like the fisherman matches the hatch; the early Christians observed their audience and adjusted the content of their speeches to better communicate to that audience.    The first sermon recorded in the book of Acts is Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost.  Those listening to his sermon are, “Jews, devout men, from every nation under heaven.” (2:17)  Peter’s content is extremely Jewish in nature. Most of his words are direct quotes from the books of Joel and Psalms, both of which are included in the Jewish scriptures.  His words are also extremely Messianic.  It seems that Peter’s specific goal is to persuade his audience that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah or Christ. (2:30-36)  In comparing Peter’s words to those of Paul, recorded in Acts 13:13-41, there are many similar characteristics.  This text mentions that Paul is also preaching to Jews, but in a Synagogue in Antioch.  In it, Paul gives a lengthy paraphrase of Jewish history coupled with several quotes from the Jewish scriptures, and persuasion that Jesus is the Messiah.  These are two speeches given by two different men, but they spoke very similar sermons because they had a similar audience.    Luke also records for us one of Peter’s sermons given to Cornelius a God fearing Gentile.  A God-Fearer in the first century was a Gentile who believed in the Jewish God, Jehovah, and who followed His religious rituals as much as possible, but who did not go through the religious rite of circumcision to become a full proselyte.[iv] This speech is recorded in Acts 10:34-43.  F. F. Bruce mentions the major difference between this speech and that of Pentecost. 

“Some acquaintance with the main outline of the story of Jesus is presumed (for Peter’s hearers were far from being raw pagans), but more details are given than in the summaries of Peter’s earlier speeches.” 

Another major difference is that there are no quotes from the Jewish scriptures, just an allusion to the Prophets as a whole.  Peter also gives much credence to the fact that he was an eye witness to these events.

The last kinds of speeches that Luke records are those given to pagans.  Acts 14:14-18 records the sermon that Paul gave to the pagans in the city of Lystra.  The subject matter of this speech is greatly different from those given above.  To begin with, it is very broad in its makeup.  Paul does not quote any religious texts but refers to the natural world as proof for his point.  Bruce says of this text that,  

“To Jews and God-fearing Gentiles, who already knew that God is one, and that he is the living and true God, the gospel proclaimed that this God had sent his Son Messiah and Savior; but pagans had first to be taught what Jews already confessed regarding the unity and character of God.  ‘God is one,’ the pagans of Lystra are told, ‘and has not left Himself without witness.’”[v] 

There was much that Paul’s audience did not know about the God that he was preaching to them.  So he had to teach them about that God.  There is also another speech that Paul gives to a similar pagan audience found in Acts 17:22-31.  It records Paul’s sermon to Greek philosophers in Athens Greece.  Once again Paul’s listeners knew very little about Jehovah, so much of his time is spent educating them on the basics of Theology.  Paul begins by saying, “God, Who made the world and everything in it.” (17:24) 

Ken Ham gives an interesting comment on this verse when he says, “It is well documented that these Greek philosophers were evolutionary-based in their thinking….He spoke against their idols and explained to them that this Creator was ruler and judge…after removing the wrong foundation from their thinking, and setting in the correct foundation, Paul then built the structure of the gospel.”[vi]  As in Lystra Paul quotes nothing from any religious scriptures, but he does quote the works of two poets who were well known in the Greek mind.  These poets were Epimendes and Aratus.  These characteristics cause F. F. Bruce to say of this speech, “The man who calls himself ‘a Hebrew of Hebrews’ (Phil. 3:5) was at the same time, from another point of view, a Hellenist of Hellenists.  The essential content of the speech is biblical, but the presentation is Hellenistic.”[vii]  

Sowers Know Your Soil

In her book on the Fundamentals of Speech, Anna Lloyd Neal lists ten basic principles for the effective speaker.  The fourth principle that she lists is: “The effective speaker analyzes and adjusts to every speaking situation.”[ix]  This accurately describes the way early Christians preached the gospel.  They truly understood the wisdom of adapting their approach to the particular audience at hand.  The church today desperately needs to follow in their example.  Ken Ham has much to say on this subject. 

“It’s about time that the modern Church came to grips with a society that is more “Greek” than “Jewish” in outlook….Whereas, in the past, the creation basis was evident in society and people were less ignorant of Christian doctrine, late 20th century man knows little of that.”[x]    “What Paul was involved in was pre-evangelism (or what I call “creation evangelism”).  Mostly we think of evangelism as sowing and reaping….This, of course, works when the ground is already prepared to receive the seed as it was with the Jews.  Christians, however, need to become familiar with the fact that it is becoming increasingly necessary to be involved in plowing first, then sowing, and finally reaping.”[xi] 

The modern church must understand that “Religion’s taken-for-grantedness is the genie that cannot be put back in the bottle.”[xii]  The church must know its audience and alter its approach to reach the post-modern mind.  If the church would follow this first century example she may receive first century results. 

To the City Slicker First and also to the Country Bumpkin 

A second method that the early church used to spread the gospel was that they targeted cities.  The early Christians understood the strategic position that cities had in their time and they purposefully determined to plant churches in them.  The missionary journeys documented in the book of Acts show that pioneering missionaries, like Paul, almost exclusively went into cities and very rarely went into rural areas.  “The mission movement of the New Testament was primarily an urban movement.  After Pentecost the gospel spread from city to city…It was in the cities of the Roman Empire that Christianity enjoyed its greatest success.”[xiii] 

The cities that Paul targeted were the major metropolitan areas of his time.  Much of Acts records Paul’s evangelization work in the city of Ephesus.  This city “was perhaps best known for its magnificent temple of Artemis, or Diana, one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world.  It was also an important political, educational, and commercial center ranking with Alexandria in Egypt.”[xiv]  Another city which Paul planted a church in was Thessalonica.  “This city became the capital of Macedonia (ca. 168 B.C.)…Because it was located on the main east-west highway, Via Egnatia, Thessalonica served as a hub of political and commercial activity in Macedonia, and became known as ‘the mother of all Macedonia.’”[xv]  Paul’s epistle to the Romans reveals his great desire to reach that city for Christ. (1:13)  In Paul’s mind this was a major goal because it was the capital of the Roman Empire.    This begs the question.  Why did the early Christians exclusively reach the cities of their time?  Bruce gives a good answer when he says of Pisidian Antioch that, “Paul seems to have attached importance to the evangelization of such centers, from which the gospel would readily radiate out into the adjoining country.”[xvi]  Paul believed that if he reached the city the gospel would naturally flow out from it to the outlying rural areas.   

“He knew that strategically if you reach the city that information and people go out from the city and if you want to reach the suburban and rural areas you start with the city…Culture flows out of the city.  The strategic importance of churches in cities is that it affects far more than just the city.”[xvii] 

Does the Church Have a City Address?

In looking at the demographics in the United States today this approach has been widely abandoned by the modern day church.  The general opinion that modern day Christians have of the city is that it is an evil place to be avoided at all costs.  The 21st century Christian’s view of the city is completely opposite from that of the 1st century Christian.  The church today is fascinated with the country and Suburbia.  The Polis Center has done much research on the church’s changing attitude of the city in Indianapolis and after thoroughly researching the subject their conclusion was “that institutional religion has increasingly vacated the urban public sphere.”[xviii] 

Dr. Bruce McAllister, Director of Ministerial Training at Bob Jones University, recently researched the need for church planting in the United States.  The question he endeavored to answer was, “Where is the primary need for churches to be planted?”  He concluded that cities are one of the neediest fields for church planting. 

“Many American cities have Fundamental churches, but still have a great need for church planting…We have identified 73 important cities that appear to be in need of more Fundamental churches.”[xix]  Because of population growth, the need for church-planting in cities continues to sky-rocket.  In 1989 Roger S. Greenway said,   “It is predicted that by the year 2000 half of the world will be living in cities.  As centers of power, cities have always had disproportionate influence on national cultures.  Now we have an added reason for turning our attention to cities: this is where most of the people of the world will be found from the year 2000 onwards.”[xx]  

According to The United Nations’ State of the World’s Cities 2006-07 report Greenway’s prediction was realized.  “Last year the world’s urban population was 3.17bn out of a total of 6.45bn.”  But, the report went on by predicting even greater growth in the world’s cities.  “Cities in the developing world will account for 95 per cent of urban growth over the next two decades.…Current trends suggest the number of urban dwellers will rise to almost 5bn by 2030, out of a world total of 8.1bn.”[xxi]  

When one couples the need with the attitude that the church has of cities the situation looks bleak.  It is so disappointing because the city has such a strategic position in society.

Dr. Tim Keller says, “As the city goes so goes the culture…cities are the culture forming womb of a society.”[xxii]  Greenway lists eight different ways that cities “influence the hinterland” including Government, Education, Health care, Entertainment, Trade, Industry, and Warfare.[xxiii]The strategic position of the modern day city compared to that of the 1st century city is very similar.  The church must follow the example that 1st century Christians gave and target the cities of the world for Christ.  If the Church wants to impact the Post-Modern culture for Christ then she must change her view of the city and reach the culture at its core. 

Back to the Bible

When one looks at the great need in this world one cannot help but be overcome with a sense of inadequacy.  But when one sees the amazing impact that the 1st century church had on its culture one is encouraged.  The early Christians spread the gospel to the whole world within 300 years.  They had no telephone, computer, printing press, or internet; yet, they were able to “turn the world upside down” with the preaching of the gospel.  (Acts 17:6)  The modern day church can do the same if she would pattern her evangelization after the examples given in the book of Acts.  

Arthur E. Farnsley II, N.J Demerath III…, Sacred Circles and Public Squares: Religion De- and Re-Centered in Indianapolis and the Nation 

Anna Lloyd Neal, A syllabus for Fundamentals of speech: Study outline, (Greenville, SC: BJU Press, 1985) 

Bruce McAllister, U.S.A. Church Planting 

F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts.  NICNT. Rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988) Finfacts Team, News: International, (Jun 16, 2006) 

Hans Josef Klauck, Magic and paganism in Early Christianity: The World of the Acts of the Apostles (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003) 

John MacArthur, The John MacArthur Study Bible (Nashville: Nelson, 1997) 

Ken Ham, Creation Evangelism for the New Millennium, (Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 1999) 

Ken Ham, The Lie Evolution (Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 1987) 

Mark Driscoll, Loving the City keywords 10th anniversary (1 Oct. 2006)  

Mark D. Williams, Matching the Hatch (2000). 

Mark Occam, Occam’s Razor:  Religion A La Carte,, (27 Feb. 2005) 

Roger S. Greenway & Timothy M. Monsma, Cities: Missions New Frontier (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989) 

Tim Keller, Being the Church in our culture,, (July 5, 2006)

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