Most of us have found common ground with someone and have experienced how it brings down walls. Common ground can be found in the most mundane places—people who grew up in the same area or who went to the same high school that we did, people who live in our neighborhoods, people who like the same food that we do, or people who root for the same sports teams. We may know nothing else about a person, but if we have common ground in just one area, we are more open and friendly with them. Common ground counts for a lot.
Paul knew this. Part of his strategy for spreading the message of Christianity around the Mediterranean was to seek common ground with anyone who would listen. Paul and his team needed to find a receptive audience as often as possible. For example, they consistently visited Jewish synagogues first when they came to a new city, because they shared a cultural and religious heritage. They sought common ground in many other ways, but we’re going to focus on one key example: Paul’s speech in the city of Athens.
16 While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed when he saw that the city was full of idols. 17 So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and with those who worshiped God, as well as in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. 18 Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also debated with him. Some said, “What is this ignorant show-off trying to say?” Others replied, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign deities”—because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. 19 They took him and brought him to the Areopagus, and said, “May we learn about this new teaching you are presenting? 20 Because what you say sounds strange to us, and we want to know what these things mean.” 21 Now all the Athenians and the foreigners residing there spent their time on nothing else but telling or hearing something new. — Acts 17:16-21 (CSB)
In his speech, Paul affirmed the Athenians’ obvious desire to know and serve God—he met them on their place of common ground. But Paul also argued that it was wrong to think that God is something that we create, or that He lives in houses we build for Him. Paul was not demonizing the Athenians; he was suggesting that they misunderstood God’s nature.
What’s most notable about Paul’s speech is what he did not say. Paul did not quote Scripture. He did not mention the Messiah or the name of Jesus. That sort of thing would be a perfect strategy for a Jewish audience, who would be familiar with the Old Testament. But this was not the synagogue. This was an illustrious council of Athenian thinkers who were probably unfamiliar with the Jewish Scriptures. Paul knew this, so he sought common ground elsewhere.
Paul commented on their city’s religious climate. He leveraged their altar to an unknown god as a launching point. He quoted their own poets to back up his claims. Paul wanted to find whatever foothold he could to open up a dialogue with the Athenians. Paul likely did not view this speech as all he wanted to say, but his best opening statement in what he hoped would become an ongoing discussion.
We need to change our mentality toward nonbelievers. We often fall into the trap of an “us versus them” mentality when it comes to spiritual matters. We see people as either allies or enemies and quickly put them into one of those two columns based on superficial observations. Paul and his team would have been baffled by this. Paul looked at people who believed very different things from him and asked himself, “How can I build bridges to these people?”
Seeking common ground is a powerful tool in the hands of a Christian willing to wield it. It overcomes countless barriers to the gospel. When someone experiences common ground with you, they are more willing to hear what you have to say. They are more willing to consider your perspective. Simply put, they are more likely to like you. Common ground gives you a level of influence that you would not otherwise have, because most people are unwilling to be led by someone they don’t know or don’t like. We should view ourselves as the seekers and wielders of common ground with any people or communities that our ministries touch.
This was an excerpt from Ryan Lokkesmoe’s small group study, Paul and His Team. Session 1. Series and study are available exclusively at smallgroup.com.