Finding common ground with people who do not know Christ opens the door to authentically and relationally share the gospel..
Most of us have found common ground with someone and experienced how it brings down walls. Common ground is found in mundane places: people who grew up in the same area or who went to the same high school we did, people who live in our neighborhoods, people who like the same food 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.
On Paul’s second missionary journey through the Roman world (ca. 49–52 AD), he spent time in Athens, Greece where he found himself debating with some Greek thinkers. He was then invited to address an important group in Athens: the Areopagus. This was an ancient Athenian council that oversaw various religious and civic matters. Areopagus is a Greek word that translates “Hill of Ares,” or more popularly, “Mars Hill.” The council got its name from the small hill that sits nearby the larger Acropolis. This was their traditional meeting place.
Paul started by commenting on the religious environment in Athens. He doesn’t do it in a condemning way, but just as an observant outsider. Paul saw something unusual that he could use as a starting point – an altar to an unknown god. The other altars in Athens would have had the names of the gods and goddesses on them, but just to be sure that they weren’t forgetting one of the gods, the Athenians created this generic altar to an unknown god. Paul’s strategy was essentially to say, “That unknown god you worship? I know who He is.”
Acts 17: 24-34
24 The God who made the world and everything in it-He is Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in shrines made by hands. 25 Neither is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives everyone life and breath and all things. 26 From one man He has made every nation of men to live all over the earth and has determined their appointed times and the boundaries of where they live, 27 so that they might seek God, and perhaps they might reach out and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us.
28 For in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring. 29 Being God’s offspring, then, we shouldn’t think that the divine nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image fashioned by human art and imagination. 30 “Therefore, having overlooked the times of ignorance, God now commands all people everywhere to repent,
31 because He has set a day on which He is going to judge the world in righteousness by the Man He has appointed. He has provided proof of this to everyone by raising Him from the dead.” 32 When they heard about resurrection of the dead, some began to ridicule him. But others said, “We will hear you about this again.” 33 So Paul went out from their presence.
34 However, some men joined him and believed, among whom were Dionysius the Areopagite, a woman named Damaris, and others with them.
In his speech, Paul affirmed the Athenians’ obvious desire to know and serve God, but argued that it was wrong to think that He’s something we create or that He lives in houses we build for Him. Paul was not demonizing the Athenians; he was suggesting that they misunderstood who God is. 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 somewhere else.
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 or outsiders. 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 is an excerpt from Ryan Lokkesmoe’s small group study, Paul and His Team Session 1. Series and study are available exclusively at smallgroup.com.