The church is commanded throughout Scripture to engage culture, to pursue and influence the culture around them. Jesus, in Matthew 5:14-16, said,
14 ‘You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. 16 Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.’
Christians are to influence the culture around them. Wherever we work, eat, sleep, play, etc. we are to be a Christian influence in that area of our culture. We are not Christians only on Sunday, but we’re Christians every single day in every area of our lives. The only way we can engage our culture is if we understand our culture. The reality is that the culture is either influencing the church or the church is influencing their culture. We find the Apostle Paul engaging his culture in Acts 17:16-34. From his example, we can learn how to engage culture.
The Apostle Paul was Burdened for the Culture around Him (Acts 17:16-21)
Paul did not seek to “try out” the idols of Athens. As Christians the church must do its best not to be deceived by the world. As Children of God we must continually remind ourselves that the grass is not greener in the Devil’s kingdom, although it may often appear to be. In response to our wonderful salvation, we must exercise self-control and seek to bring glory to God in all we do. We owe Him more than we can give. Our actions will show exactly how much we believe we owe.
Materialism is an idol. Alhough few American Christians today are being deceived by tangible idols, many do worship “The American Dream.” The American Dream is often described as having a family, a home, and making good money. Although these things in and of themselves are not evil, when a person makes these blessings the priority of his or her life, then these things become idols. The point at which these things become idols is when they are viewed as the ultimate goal. When our ending goal is a family, a house, and making good money, instead of viewing these things as ways to glorify God, then they become idols. With this understanding, the question is, “How many Christians are unknowingly worshiping idols?” The answer is obviously “too many.” The Apostle Paul did not add these idols to his worship of God, and Christians today must not add any idols to their worship of God. Regardless how tempting idol worship is, Christians must live for God’s glory alone.
Paul was sparked to respond to his burden. Although the Apostle Paul had seen idols in pagan cultures before, this city was wholly given over to idolatry, saturated in them, and the Apostle sought to respond. As a result of his burden, he reasoned in the synagogue and marketplace with whoever would listen (v.17). As a result of him “bringing strange things to their ears” (v.20), they brought him to the Areopagus to investigate his teaching (v.19). (This Areopagus meeting may refer to a court hearing examining Paul’s doctrines or it may simply refer to an informal meeting of Athenians at a place called the Areopagus in order to publicly understand Paul’s teachings concerning Christ.)
It must be noted here that being burdened for the culture is not enough. The church must be willing to spring to action. If we are silent about the truth, then the culture will not change. The gospel is the answer. Paul was jealous for the glory of God, and was offended at the idols of Athens because God was offended, and this motivation spurred Him to share the gospel. The church must follow suit, being burdened over the fact that there are people on this earth who do not bring our God, the only God, glory.
Furthermore, when Christians hear some of the music or see some of the movies from our culture, our response is often “the world is going to hell in a hand basket.” However, we find Paul responding to the Athenian culture with burden and unashamed boldness. Instead of shaking our heads in “holier than thou” disgust at our culture, the church must be burdened, and we must actively seek to teach our culture the gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Paul Recognized His Culture’s Inconsistencies (Acts 17:22-23)
Paul realized that the Athenians were very religious. Paul observed his culture, caring enough to seek out their inconsistencies. Over the years there has developed this anti-intellectual, anti-culture mentality within the Evangelical community. Across the board we have “Christianized” nearly everything we could get our hands on. We have Christian music, movies, TV shows, and even tools. Although these things are not bad, some Christians believe if there is a “Christianized” alternative, then an individual sins if he or she partakes of the “worldly” one. For some reason this withdrawal of Christians from society has been viewed as godly. However, if the church is going to be salt and light in their culture, then we must observe our culture. The church does not have to participate in ungodliness; however, we do have to participate in our culture. If we are going to understand our culture’s inconsistencies, then we must take time to understand our culture.
All of these extra boundaries in Christians’ lives actually hurt our engagement of culture. Unfortunately, Christians have become Pharisees. We have added to God’s Word with the goal of godliness; however, the goal of godliness is achieved by God’s definition, not man’s definition. Paul knew these Athenians were very religious because he observed their idols. Paul did not stick his nose up in the air trying to Christianize their pagan festivals or their pagan forms of worship. He simply observed, finding their inconsistencies, and responded by telling the truth. The church too must observe their culture. Let the church always realize that it is what comes out of a man that defiles him, not what goes in (Mark 7:20-23). The church must submit to God’s Word first, our consciences second, while always holding fellow Christians accountable to God’s Word and never accountable to our consciences.
Paul realized that the Athenians knew they did not have everything figured out concerning their deities. Paul observed that these Athenians, in order to cover their bases, had even dedicated an idol to the “unknown god.” Although they were very religious, they still did not have everything figured out concerning God. Paul knew that this acknowledgement of an unknown god by the Athenians was an indirect admission of their uncertainty about their religion. They did this because of their guilt, and the Apostle used this “unknown god” as a starting point for the fact that these Athenians lived in God’s world, although they ignorantly denied this truth.
In like manner, today in America, there are many who say that there is no absolute truth, and everything is relative. Yet, many of these individuals absolutely deplore murder. Now, if there are no absolutes, then murder cannot be absolutely wrong, and how dare anyone condemn anyone else, forcing their relative opinion as if it is absolute. This is a clear inconsistency in our American culture. American Christians must recognize that our culture cannot say there are no absolutes, and live and judicially practice as if there are. Let us seek to show our culture its inconsistencies, giving them the truth.
In conclusion, the church must participate in its culture, responding in holy indignation for God’s glory alone. This indignation however must spur a love for God, and a love for those created in His image. Forming a Christian sub-culture is not the answer. The answer is for us to engage culture in obedience to the Lord, seizing every area of culture and the people in it for God’s glory alone. The only way to accomplish this “redemption” of culture is through understanding our culture, being in the culture but not of the culture.
 Clint Heacock, “Text and Culture: Bringing the Biblical Worldview to Bear on the World: A Biblical-Theological Study of Acts 17:16-34.” (Th.M. Thesis, Western Conservative Baptist Seminary, 2003), Theological Research Exchange Network, 002-0772, 103-104.
 Ibid., vi.
 Ibid., 27.
 David M. Ballast, “Contextualizing the Gospel: Comparing Paul’s Methods in Athens and Corinth.” (Th.M. Thesis, Dallas Theological Seminary, 2003), Theological Research Exchange Network, 001-0904, 9.
 Thomas D. Lea and David A. Black, The New Testament: Its Background and Message, 2nd ed. (Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 2003), 314.
 Heacock, “Text and Culture: Bringing the Biblical Worldview to Bear on the World: A Biblical-Theological Study of Acts 17:16-34”, 27-28.
 Ibid., 95.
 Ibid., 97. See Heacock pgs 1-107, and especially pgs 89-107 for a well articulated examination of Paul’s engagement of the Athenian culture; and how the church must follow his example in contemporary society in order to bring glory to God.
 Ibid.. 94-95.
 Ibid., 95.
 Ibid., 97.
 Gregory V. Comfort, “A Study of Pauline Apologetics in the Book of Acts”, 34.
 Heacock, “Text and Culture: Bringing the Biblical Worldview to Bear on the World: A Biblical-Theological Study of Acts 17:16-34”, 105.