We often quote Paul’s speech at Athens as a model missionary approach and yet it was one of Paul’s biggest failures. He did not succeed in founding a church there. Macintosh analyses his failure thus: “The Christian propaganda failed or prospered in proportion as the fresh data for religion present in Jesus were studiously concealed or openly proclaimed. Take Paul’s address at Athens: says some fine things, God’s spirituality, a God afar off–one in whom we live and move, creation instead of chaos. Providence instead of chance, men of one blood instead of proud distinction between Greek and Barbarian. But at no point is publicity given to the distinctive Christian message. In this studied omission of the cross is the secret of his comparative failure at Athens and his subsequent change at Corinth. He writes penitently, ‘I determined to know nothing among you save Jesus Christ and him crucified.’ “ ~ E. Stanley Jones (quoting Mackintosh), The Christ of the Indian Road (38, emphasis added)
We’ve made a big mistake. We’ve taken Paul’s failure and made it a pattern for our own success. We’ve hailed the Athenian pattern of discussion as a heroic example of how we ought to interact with our world. And because of this we have mixed the gospel with culture to make it appealing, cut it with a little water, a little sugar, added whatever cultural flavor-of-the-month was in vogue. We have forgotten that culture is transitory, while the gospel is eternal, and we have forgotten that the Church rises and falls to the degree that she resolves herself to be of Corinthian, and not Athenian mindset. Our big mistake is that we have thought the best way to be Christian is to be an accessible, cultural Christian, to adapt Christ to culture, rather than culture to Christ. Brothers and Sisters, this must not be! We must know Christ and Him Crucified. He is our expertise, and if we know Him then we will be fairly equipped to address any issue raised by culture: those of our present time, those of the past, and those of the future.