Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. - Acts 17:16-17
So Paul, standing in the midst of the Aeropagus, said: "Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, 'To the unknown god.' What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything." - Acts 17:22-25
When I lived in China, I once had to do an emergency visa renewal that required me to leave the country first. I ended up spending two nights in Hong Kong on my own, a city I was unfamiliar with. With my only task being a visa renewal and tons of time on my hands while the embassy processed my information, I had the freedom to explore. So I wandered the streets of Hong Kong, aimless and directionless, allowing wind and whimsy to direct my steps. It was one of the few times I delighted in getting lost.
And so I floated through the heart of Hong Kong, each street a blood vessel from one ventricular neighborhood to the next. When you use your mouth sparingly (I speak Mandarin, not Cantonese, but boy can I eat) and allow your other senses priority, it's amazing how much more you learn sometimes. Take in enough and you begin to sense a city's identity, her values and vision. Wander enough and you see who is rocketing to the moon and who is being left behind, what truly matters to her citizens, what keeps her heart beating, what she truly loves.
I imagine this was how Paul felt in Athens. With time to kill, he meandered along her walkways, not only observing but interpreting and evaluating. A city scattered with statues to her pantheon of gods, dedicated temples on every corner among street hawkers and craftsmen. He would eavesdrop on philosophical and social debates, asking questions, engaging their worldviews. He took time to take it all in, to learn what made her tick, what she took pride in, what she treasured. And only then did Paul speak. He spoke her language, sensitive to the soil in which she arose, the cultural edifices that adorned her. It was in this manner that he brought forth the gospel.
How well do you know where you live? What are the reigning social, political, and economic values of your city? What are her golden calves, that which she worships, the place her treasure lies? How much time have you spent observing, tasting, listening to her heartbeat, her anxieties, her joys?
To faithfully speak the gospel into the world, we must understand the worlds in which we desire to speak the gospel into. There are no vacuums here, no blank canvasses to paint anew, only that which must be painted over. This is not an advertisement for Christianizing or colonizing arts and culture, urban city centers, or America, something evangelicals have become too enamored with. What it is though is a plea to learn about where you live. Know her history, her desires, her dreams. Speak to those ideals, bring the gospel to them and show them how Jesus is better. That her desires are misaligned, that her dreams aren't big enough. It is God who will usher in the new heavens and new earth. Let us listen to and learn the places we live in so we might make known that which Jesus has already accomplished and promised to do.