In this issue of the APCE Advocate we are exploring classic and innovative approaches for nurturing faith in adults as we focus on the theme of “The Changing Face of Adult Education.” As we move even more fully into postmodern ministry, it is especially important to remember that Adult Christian education is not one size fits all—and it never really has been. Christian faith is formed in a variety of ways and through a variety of activities. Central to them all is the importance of relationships and conversation about life and faith.
The familiar story of Paul in Athens (Acts 17:16-34) provides us with a rich opportunity for reflection on the nature and practice of Adult Christian education ministries. When we encounter Paul, he is passing time in Athens. While there, he sees that the city is full of idols. He observes his surroundings, and he is “deeply distressed.” So what does he do? He seeks out conversation partners to process his religious thoughts and feelings.
It is interesting to note that Paul sought out more than one conversation partner or conversation community. He “argued” (debated) in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons—people like him, from his faith tradition. He engaged in conversations with ordinary people, of a variety of religious and philosophical leanings, in the marketplace too . He also engaged in debate with Epicurean and Stoic philosophers, groups who he sometimes agreed with, sometimes not. (Epicureans, for instance, were critical of idolatry. They asserted that impersonal deities couldn’t produce true happiness. Stoics sought to live in harmony with the cosmos and in solidarity with the human race. They reasoned there was a non-transcendent deity that was in all things.)
These conversations led the Athenians to invite Paul to make a more formal presentation/defense of his faith in the Areopagus. While scholars continue to debate the function and tenor of the Areopagus, it serves in this story as a natural venue for people wanting to hear more from Paul. They offer him the time and space to address them.
Paul engages the Athenians in their context, on their turf. He compliments them, recognizing they are keenly pious—so pious, so religiously oriented, in fact, that they worship even an unknown god for fear of leaving some deity out! It is precisely because of their religiosity that Paul is able to introduce God: God in “whom we live and move and have our being,” God, who is knowable AND KNOWN in Jesus Christ.
Paul is passionate about God known in Jesus Christ. He tells the Athenians that in Jesus Christ God has once again spoken the divine “Yes” to humanity. In Jesus Christ, says Paul, God has made all things new. Life abundant is now available to all—Epicureans and Stoics, and everyone else in that crowd at the Areopagus. In Jesus Christ their deepest yearnings and spiritual longings can ultimately be met and fulfilled.
It was quite a speech that day in Athens. Paul passionately shared the good news of Jesus Christ with a religiously minded gathering of people who loved to hear new ideas. Some scoffed. And some wanted to hear more. And some believed.
But that was then. What relevance does this story have now?
We wander around our cities and towns—in churches, shopping malls, coffee shops, schools, and offices. We encounter people who are yearning for an abundant and whole life. We encounter people seeking meaning and purpose in life. They are all around us.
Many call themselves Spiritual, But Not Religious—people who have, both in their thinking and in their living, separated the spiritual life from organized religion. They view the spiritual as a private realm of thought and experience. For them, religious is more about membership in institutions, participation in rituals, and acceptance of doctrines. SBNR is an impoverished worldview, but it’s common—and these are people who need to hear good news.
Like Paul, we may have our moments in the Areopagus—forums where we can proclaim and share the good news of Jesus Christ. The church gathered on Sunday morning might be the Areopagus where others will hear and experience from and through us the love of God in Christ Jesus.
The reality, though, is that there are fewer people who look to the church, especially the church gathered on Sunday morning, as a place for experiencing the transforming love of God. It can be so disheartening… we have so much good news to share!
This passage from Acts calls us all to do just that—share as we are invited by those who want to hear. And while that may happen within our walls–in sanctuaries and classrooms—more often than not it will happen outside our walls. Our Areopagus can be anywhere: at work, at school, at the mall, at Starbucks, on river trails. All around us we encounter people who invite us to share our personal experiences of God’s love and grace and transformation.
Who is inviting you into conversation? Where? Enter into those conversations. Remember, conversations aren’t like programs or curriculums: “One size doesn’t fit all.” Know that some will struggle. Some will want to hear more. Some will believe and experience new life in Jesus Christ. Don’t be concerned with immediate results or outcomes. That’s God’s business, not ours. No need for us to be anxious or hesitant or afraid. Christ is risen! New life is possible. That’s what we proclaim and live. In our proclamation, in our conversations, in our living, we nurture faith in adults.
Michael Waschevski, a Certified Christian Educator, is Associate Pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Fort Worth, Texas. Michael also serves as adjunct faculty for Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. He is looking forward later this year to the release of Rhythms of Worship: The Planning and Purpose of Liturgy (WJK Press), coauthored with his father.