January 14, 2023 • Life for Leaders
Scripture — Acts 17:16, 22
While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. . . . 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.”
Christ’s followers are not called to compete in a consumer market by offering a popular product with an easy-to-swallow message. But neither are Christians called to be intentionally abrasive. Jesus dined with tax-collectors and prostitutes. He was friends with sinners. That’s one of the very things that made him unpopular with the religious leaders of his day.
Over the past fifteen years, I have been both convicted and inspired by Paul’s sermon at the Areopagus in Athens, described by Luke in Acts 17. (You can read it all here in Acts 17:16-31). Paul did not approve of the pagan religions of Athens: the polytheistic worship of many Gods including Athena (the patron goddess of Athens) and Ares (after whom the very hill on which he preached his sermon was named). As Luke tells us, Paul was “greatly distressed” by what he saw as idolatry. And yet he begins this sermon—one of the first moments in church history where we read of the Gospel proclaimed to a primarily non-Jewish audience—with words of affirmation for the Athenians: “I see that in every way you are very religious.”
In November I began considering the impact of consumerism on church. Yesterday I began to explore the temptation for Christians—especially church leaders—to conform to a consumer model by seeking to offer a popular product: something to appeal to customers, so that it can compete in the market of churches (or religions). There are myriad ways we attempt this. We can join the chorus of voices telling people how deserving they are. That’s a message we all like to hear. It makes us feel good. Or we can promise a prosperous life free of hardship. Who wouldn’t want to buy that product? Or we might shift the focus of church away from Jesus, and seek instead to make it more entertaining. Entertainment sells. That’s why movie stars and professional athletes are such celebrities.
In many times and places, connecting Jesus to popular movements such as nationalism has attracted consumers to the church. Indeed, this has been a temptation for God’s people since long before the time of Jesus. The prophet Jeremiah had a rather unpopular message for the people of Judah and Jerusalem during his day: he told them they needed to repent of injustice and oppression. Not the thing people wanted to hear! By contrast, the false prophets of Jeremiah’s time proclaimed that the people of Judah were basically good and deserved the love and favor of God. Not surprisingly, that false message was far more popular than the God-given message spoken by Jeremiah. The false prophets even accused Jeremiah of being unpatriotic because he pointed out their sins and prophesied God’s punishment. Hundreds of years later, Paul (in 2 Timothy 4:2-4) warns Timothy of a similar problem in the church of his day: that false teachers will gain popularity by saying what people want to hear.
In yesterday’s devotion (based on John 6:41-70), we saw that Jesus does not play the consumer game. He does not feed the crowds an easy-to-swallow message intended to make him popular, or help sell a product. Borrowing from Paul’s imagery in 2 Timothy, Jesus does not simply say what the “itching ears” of his disciples wanted to hear. This is an important example for the Twelve who are watching him, and who will be left with the work of building the church by the power of the Holy Spirit after Jesus has returned to be with the Father. Although his twelve disciples are concerned with the sudden decline in Jesus’ popularity, Peter recognizes that Jesus has something far more important to offer: he offers himself, the path to eternal life.
There is an important lesson in this for leaders of the church today, but it is a lesson that is easy to mistake. In our increasingly polarized echo-chamber world, it seems to be the case that the more abrasive and confrontational we are toward those on “the other side,” and the more we get attacked, the more popular we become with our own tribe. And so, ironically, becoming unpopular with an opposing group is a successful strategy in gaining popularity. To put that in the context of Christian faith and consumerism, in a consumerist world where churches struggle to gain followers, abrasiveness toward those on the outside can help sell a product. When our abrasiveness draws an equally hostile response, we can claim it is opposition to the Gospel. We justify ourselves by claiming that we are merely speaking the truth even when it’s unpopular.
Christ’s followers are not called to compete in a consumer market by offering a popular product with an easy-to-swallow message. But neither are Christians called to be intentionally abrasive. Jesus dined with tax-collectors and prostitutes. He was friends with sinners. That’s one of the very things that made him unpopular with the religious leaders of his day. Indeed, dining with tax-collectors was the sort of behavior bound to make him unpopular with almost everybody. Publicly denouncing the prostitutes and tax-collectors would have been a more effective way to gain popularity. But that was not the example Jesus set. During all of Jesus’ public ministry, the few times that he speaks in a way that seems harsh are always directed at the religious leaders of his day, and not at the “sinners.”
And here is where Paul’s example in Athens as well as Jesus’ example of dining with the “sinners” of his day is such an important and challenging model for me. It is easy for Christians—and by that, I mean it is easy for me—to develop an us/them mentality. If the Athens story had taken place today, the temptation for many Christians might have been to create memes ridiculing the Athenians for their false religions. And those memes would have spread around social media and gotten many likes, and gained followers, too. It would have made Paul popular with the more religious Jews of his day.
Paul’s affirmation of the religious hunger of the Athenians was not an attempt to popularize the Gospel by making it easy to accept. He unabashedly preached the resurrection of Jesus, and the falsehood of idols made of gold (see verses 29-31). But he began by paying attention to those who had a different belief, and then by seeking common ground. It is an uncommon approach, but a loving one: an approach may make us unpopular with our own religious crowds, but one that seems to be the way of Jesus.
Who do you consider as your tribe—the people from whom you seek popularity or affirmation?
Ponder ways in which you desire popularity for yourself, for your beliefs, and for the church. Is it important that others in your circles approve of you? Are there ways you may antagonize those who are different in order to gain approval of those who with whom you share beliefs?
Who are the tax-collectors or Athenians you know with whom you might dine, even though it might make you unpopular with some who are currently in your circles of belonging?
Seek to understand somebody who holds different beliefs and values from you – religiously, philosophically, or politically. Without needing to agree with their beliefs, look for ways you can affirm some of their goals or motivations that might break down barriers.
Lord, I confess that I have sought to sell the gospel by making it more popular, or by making it more unpopular, or at times even both. In doing so, I have been rude, abrasive, or hostile to humans whom you love, and have even sought to justify that with scripture. Thank you for the example of Paul, who found ways to make meaningful connections with the people of Athens and their spiritual hunger, even finding truth in their myths, without compromising the message of Jesus and the resurrection. Thank you even more for the example of Jesus who dined with sinners despite how that made him unpopular with the religious leaders of his day. I am one of those sinners thankful to Jesus for loving me enough to dine with me. Amen.
Banner image by Ben White on Unsplash.
Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project’s online commentary. Reflection on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: Engaging the Culture With Respect (Acts 17:16-34).
Subscribe to Life for Leaders
Sign up to receive a Life for Leaders devotional each day in your inbox. It’s free to subscribe and you can unsubscribe at any time.
Matthew Dickerson’s books include works of spiritual theology and Christian apologetics as well as historical fiction, fantasy literature, explorations of the writings of C.S.Lewis and J.R.R.Tolkien, and books about trout fishing, fly fishing, rivers, and ecology. His recent books include: Disciple Making in a Culture of Power, Comfort, and Fear and The Voices of Rivers: Reflections on Places Wild and Almost Wild. He was a 2017 artist-in-residence at Glacier National Park. He lives in Vermont with his wife, dog, and cat, not far from three married sons, and is an active member of Memorial Baptist Church. Matthew is also a professor of computer science at Middlebury College in Vermont.