Have you ever stood up in your youth meeting with what you believed were the most relevant words your teens were going to hear that week, only to receive a host of blank, adolescent stairs? Or only to receive time and time again empty conversations from your teens – especially when you try to bring Christ into the conversation?
Thankfully for us, the Apostle Paul found himself in those types of ministry scenarios on his missionary journeys time and time again. He would typically be ministering to completely new and unique people’s groups with each new location that he visited. Once such time was when Paul was in the epicenter of ancient Middle Eastern philosophy: Athens. In Acts 17, Paul is surrounded by “intellectuals”, some of who sincerely desired to understand what Paul taught. Others used it as an opportunity to scorn. But Paul masterfully uses the culture he was in to connect the people towards His God. Here are 7 truths that Paul lived that might bring some life in your cultural connectivity:
1. He Was Burdened for them.
We know this because Paul was moved to action when beholding polytheism (v16). There’s no telling how many idols there were in Athens – certainly hundreds, maybe thousands (the text says the city was “full” of idols). These things didn’t bother Paul in the least; on the contrary, it stirred him. It made him realize just how lost these Athenians were.
That should also be the state of the adult working with teens in our youth culture today. The godlessness that we see before us is actually misplaced worship – it’s polytheism…teens that have turned from the one true God to multiple sources of sufficiency. Look at the kids that you interact with – most of them believe that their teen sufficiency is found in iPhones, relationships and how many people are sitting with them in school cafeteria. Like Paul, what we see in Canada today with our youth should move us – it should stir something deep within us, something that yearns for these kids to know the truth of sufficiency is not found in multiple sources of satisfaction, but in the one true God. Are you truly burdened for the young person in your life?
2. He Engaged Them
We know this because we see Paul engaging them in their sphere of life (v17). Notice how Paul engaged the communities that he ministered to? He went and found them. He went to the synagogue. In Philippi he went down to the river. Here he in Athens he’s at the synagogue and at the marketplace.
Is it the job of the people we’re ministering to to engage us – or us to engage them? Sometimes we have the mentality in youth ministry that “They know where to find me”, but maybe the best comparative relationship we have is with our own kids. Would we expect our kids to understand their need to engage us – or should we take the lead and seek to engage them? It’s the same with all young people. Look for opportunities to engage them in their sphere of life and the things that are important to them: relationships, technology, acceptance, etc. How can you better engage your young person today?
3. He Wasn’t Intimidated by Them
Paul encountered some pretty ‘brilliant’ minds (17:18) – but this didn’t faze Paul because he knew what he believed. What was Paul preaching? “Jesus and the resurrection”. That almost sounds a little weird in today’s post-modern culture, that Paul would choose to speak about such a definite event that couldn’t be confused in the least. Paul was proclaiming that a man was raised from the dead, and that this man was God.
Paul was not a mincer of words, and neither should we. We must not be afraid to articulate the truth of what we believe in a way that our young people understand (and that is more important than we realize). Sitting in silence won’t help the teen you’re trying to connect to understand truth. We must be bold with what we believe regardless of what the ‘kick-back’ may be. Silence is often times confused with approval. So, when your teen begins to gush with secular humanism and they sound awfully intellectual – don’t flinch, don’t panic, just calmly and boldly share the truth of your relationship with Christ and why He is all you need.
4. He Went Out of His Way to Understand Them
Paul desired to make accurate assessments of the culture where he ministered (17:22,28). Paul never had a hap-hazard approach for his interaction with people. He quickly assessed the situations he was in and came up with a game-plan based on that situation. Paul discovered where the cultural dialogue was taking place and looked to have a voice in the conversation.
Teens think that as soon as you graduate from college or university, you might as well get a room at the retirement home. They are now so incredible adept at adapting to their changing culture that they don’t have time for people who can’t keep up. So, unless you’re deciding to take some classes in your local high school, you might want to find a way to stay culturally engaged to the people that you’re ministering to.
How can you do that? It takes hard work, but you have to understand to a certain extent the music they’re listening to, the movies they’re watching, the places they’re going, the people they’re most attracted to, etc. Unless you completely immerse yourself in the teen culture you’ll never completely understand why they do what they do, but you can stay well-informed of cultural shifts and be able to speak intelligently about it. Do you know the kind of music kids listen to? The video games they play? If you’d like a free tool to help you stay informed, leave a comment below.
5. Took the Culture and Weaved God Into It
Think for a moment what the Athenians believed culturally – that there are hundreds if not thousands of ‘gods’ – Paul looked around him and was able to pick that up pretty quick (17:23). But notice that Paul didn’t resort to his favourite message at that point and try to make it fit. He took the reality of their state and made a doctrinal connection. Paul wasn’t afraid to take their ignorance and illuminate it with truth.
Every issue that a teen faces that appears to have cultural momentum behind it is really stemming from ignorance about the character of God. You name the issue: anorexia, bulimia, cutting, – all of these stem from heart issues that God and His Word provide answers to based on who He is, not on what the culture says teens should be. This can be done when we’re talking to our teens about almost anything: friends, rejection, self-esteem…as Biblical influencers God must be a regular part of all our conversations, not just on Sunday coming home from church.
6. The Focal Point of His Thoughts Were Christ
Notice what Paul does here – he brings what he says to a pinnacle – to a point. He’s not content to just talk about the issue and round the issue and then leave it at that – He climaxes His message with the need of the hour for the Athenians: respond positively to the truth of Christ and repent (17:30,31)
Isn’t amazing how sometimes we’re afraid to ask teens to make a stand for Christ because of our perception of their laziness – but we too often undersell teens. We don’t give them the benefit of the doubt that they want to make a tough decision when it comes to what they believe. Don’t be afraid when giving direction to this culture of teens to present them with a decision to make – even weekly.
7. Was content to leave the decision making to them and God
Revival did not break out in Athens. The text makes it clear what the general response was: some sneered, some delayed, some believed. Kind of looks like the make up of your average youth group, doesn’t it? And yet, Paul was content to lay out the truth and then allow the Holy Spirit to convict (17:33,34)
It’s true with teens and it’s truth with horses: you can lead them to water but you can’t make them drink. You have to allow the teen to make these tough choices on their own, because for many of these teens they have been “told” what to believe their whole lives without any reason why or any encouragement to think about God and the Bible for themselves.
What about you? How have you had success in engaging teens through their culture?