Stuck Between “All-Possible-Means” and Mars Hill
So I know that many people use Paul’s missional encounter on Mars Hill as a positive example of interacting with… perhaps even embracing current culture to share the story of Jesus. I’ll be honest I keep getting hung up on the fact that Mars Hill was the scene of one of Paul’s greatest failures…not many believed. I wonder Paul intended this story as a descriptive how-to or how-not-to?
At the same time, I am convicted by the words “all possible means” in I Corinthians 9:22. Paul says, “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.”
So I’m stuck between “all-possible-means” and Mars Hill.
I want to be an all-possible-means Kingdom builder. I want to be open to all-possibly-means of life-transformation and church-reformation. But I keep wondering… was something missing at Mars Hill? Let me give you an example. On his Big Is the New Small blog, Scott Williams posts a great YouTube video about social media. Watch this…
So –obviously social media is a possible means to share the story of Jesus. Social media is a possible means of saving some. If this is true then we need to use it. It is an Areopagus for 96% of millenials and millions of others. It is a place where people congregate, debate, interact, spread new ideas and scorn old ideas.
But my question is…how do we use this means without it becoming a Mars Hill mistake? I think — the key — is prayer. Sorry to make it so simple, — though not simplistic — but we are most effective when one-mighty-presence permeates our all-possible means. Anyone out there using facebook as your prayer list? Anyone gathering together to pray that a status update that lifts up Jesus would be anointed to be just the right word read at just the right time? Anyone believing that the Holy Spirit could do something supernatural on Twitter?
Dan–I can appreciate what you’re wrestling through here. We certainly don’t want to be short-sighted and ineffective in our outreach. And I really like your emphasis on redemptively using our social media, as opposed to just consuming it.
Still, I see Mars Hill differently. We’ve talked about this a little bit before, but what if Mars Hill isn’t a failure? I don’t read it that way. One purpose of Acts is to tell the story of how the Gospel went to everyone and everywhere in the known world, and so in that sense it’s part of the successful story. But I think it’s a success in more ways than that one.
As someone who spends a good time up on the ‘Mars Hill’ of PSU with students who like to debate all the latest ideas (including the kinds of skeptics and pagans in Acts 17), I’m keenly aware of the challenges Paul faced. I think stories like Mars Hill cause us to reevaluate our grid for what constitutes success. Not every Sunday will be Pentecost Sunday, and Paul never gets the instant results like Peter does, but that doesn’t mean he’s a failure, right?
I’ve been thinking about the Peter Wagner scale for illustrating “cultural distance” from the Gospel, ranging from “m0” which would be little to no cultural distance, all the way to “m4,” which would be huge cultural, racial, ethnic, religious, and sociological obstacles, such as a devoted Muslim in Saudia Arabia. Mars Hill probably falls in the “m3” range.
What constitutes success for Paul at Mars Hill, and throughout Acts, is that he is able to penetrate any and every people group that he comes across, no matter how far they are from the Gospel, and “by all possible means, save some.” If Paul ever crunches the numbers, he’s not counting heads so much as counting churches he’s established and tribes that he’s penetrated. He’s looking forward to the day when “people from every tribe, tongue and nation” are at the throne.
The challenge of moving beyond the m0-m1 crowd is that, because of the cultural distance, seeing the Gospel take root is a longer, harder process. If we have m0 expectations for an m3 group, we’ll be disappointed. If you expect to hit .325 in the major leagues because you hit .350 in single-A ball, you’ll likely be disappointed too. Given those obstacles, seeing anyone at Mars Hill convert is a wild success! And I believe he was hopeful about the future of the churches that were eventually established there.
What I’m saying is that we have to take into account 1) the degree of difficulty, and 2) the long-range process. It takes time to become established in cultural contexts different from ours, so that we can speak incarnationally and with integrity from within them. As Christians in a rapidly shifting cultural context here in the US, we need to see that most people are NOT right on the doorstep of belief.
2 weeks ago, I got a message from a student I had met with LAST academic year. I had lost track of him this year. He was very skeptical, and very heady/intellectual. He told me that he had become a Christian in the last couple months, and that my “Jesus Group” had played a part in that! This wasn’t a kid I had been investing in for a year, but God saw fit to take the seeds that had been planted, and bring them to fruition. While I would like to see more instant fruit from my Sojourn Forum and Skeptics’ Bible Study this year, in many ways I can look back at the “wins” from this year, and trust God for the future fruit.
Just an alternate take on Mars Hill–a little disagreement is a good thing in the blogosphere. :)
A little disagreement is a great thing in the blogosphere!
Steve I think my thoughts on Paul’s success or lack of it at Mars Hill are not simply numbers based, though I do believe that people count, so numbers matter. And I also appreciate deeply your commitment to the hard-to-reach people.
While I do NOT believe that numbers are the only sign of success, I also believe that when it comes to reaching the m3 or m4 people groups, simply trying does not constitute success. In other words, I don’t think you are saying that simply because it’s more difficult, we cannot evaluate our strategies and methods. Right?
So here are two reasons why I think Mars Hill was — at least not as effective as God might have wanted it to be —
1) It was not relational-based, so much as it was large event, speaker-driven. There was little relationship involved. In the communities where Paul had more effectiveness — and to be honest I’m not sure there were many m1 or m2 people groups in Paul’s day — it seems like he spent more time on relationships. It’s interesting to me that in Acts 17:26-27 Paul gives a glimpse of God’s relational strategy —
2) There is little evidence of the supernatural work of the Spirit and little focus on Christ. He is primarily relying on creative cultural connections and persuasive speech, like far too many of us pastors do far too often. Isn’t it interesting that after Mars Hill, Paul goes to Corinth and says things like, “I did not come to you with persuasive words but in the power of the Holy Spirit.” and “I determined to know nothing in your midst but Christ and Christ crucified.”
Interestingly enough, the strategy that God is currently using to bring Muslims (your m4 example) into the Kingdom is Christ speaking to them in visions and dreams.
Thanks for your post, as always, well thought out and communicated.
Hey Dan! I just read this blog post and think it is so true and so cool! I’ve been using my facebook as a pray list, praying over my status updates and friends that pop up for a while now, and God has been doing REALLLY cool stuff. I’ve had at least 20 friends that have asked me for advice/ told me they were searching and that my status updates/info profile has helped them in their Christian walk, made them want to get closer to Jesus/ has spoken to them exactly in what they were going through. And that is only the ones that tell me. Each story is so different, and a way that God is working.
I’ve been a Christian for three years, and basically everyone that I knew before wasn’t a Christian. It’s been a great way to share my testimony to them, and they can see the transformation God has done. I always pray that all those friends from the past will get saved. Last week a friend from my freshman year of college told me that he got saved last year, that he was so encouraged that I was a Christian from my profile and it helped push him onto his Christian faith. He gave me a scripture that directly spoke to what I was going through at the time Habakkuk 3:17-19.
This morning I woke up and had a message from an old friend, that has actually done some very bad things to me. They told me they want to have a relationship with Christ, and they asked for advice, books, sources that could help them along the way. God is working in my heart with forgiveness and mercy, and bringing others closer to him. It is so cool to see how God can use anything for his glory!!!