To say that we live in a connected and networked world is old news. When an immigrant from Mexico cooks my favorite Levantine dish (I happen to be Korean American) at a bodega owned by a second-generation Jordanian, the world just got smaller and more connected. Cultures collide, and the outcome is messy and beautiful. It is difficult to see where one culture ends and another begins. Is the hot sauce in the baba ghanoush a Mexican touch? No one knows, not even the server. Like a good sketch, there is a lot of cross-hatching, and the final product is greater than the parts. The keenest observers of society are those who are incentivized to see—entrepreneurs, financial institutions, and missionaries.
The world has plenty of the former, and they can sniff opportunities years before others. If we tweak Horace’s famous words and monetize it, carpe pecuniam (“seize the money”) might be their motto. In a world where mammon is enthroned, who can fault them? They are just better devotees.
The church, if she is honest, is far slower in analyzing shifts in culture. Part of the problem is, undoubtedly, owing to the church’s inherent traditionalism, not necessarily a bad quality in a world obsessed with novelty. However, if God has created these shifts in culture and networks for the church to accomplish her mission, then failing to see them is to miss God’s design. More importantly, the church might miss open doors. To provoke our imaginations, the apostle Paul offers an example of what can be done by those who use networks in a selfless way.
Paul was a man of his times. He was a Jew, who lived in a Hellenized world under the rule of the Roman Empire. He could expound the Scriptures to his countrymen in synagogues, reason with Greeks in lecture halls, and preach to Roman soldiers in prison (Acts 17:1–9; 17:22–34; 19:9; Phil. 1:12–14). Paul knew how to be all things to all people and to use the networks of the world to further his mission (1 Cor. 9:19–23).
It is interesting to note that Paul did not create much in terms of infrastructure–church buildings, cultural centers, and the like. Instead, he discerned what was already available and used them to their fullest potential. And to put it mildly, there was a lot that Paul could use. Rome’s empire extended from the British Isles to North Africa to Turkey. More importantly, this empire was surprisingly unified. Certain constants were embedded into the Roman world such as trade routes, ports, roads, citizenship, law, and the Roman army. Paul used them all.
Theologically speaking, Paul had an understanding that common grace, God’s blessing to all, was the handmaiden of special grace, God’s work of salvation. Therefore, Paul was unafraid to use what he saw in the world to further his mission. When he first came into a city, he often started in synagogues (Acts 13:5; 13:13–15; 17:1–4; 17:10; 17:17; 18:5–88; 19:8). This act was reasonable. As a former Pharisee, he knew the Scriptures and the worldview of fellow Jews. From there, Paul crossed over to the general population.
Addressing people on the Areopagus in Athens, Paul is remarkable (Acts 17:16–34). He used a monument to “an unknown God” as a segue to talk about the God who created the heavens and earth. He also chose Greek authors to make his point. Paul quoted Epimenides of Crete and Aratus, a Greek didactic poet. Classics scholar E. B. Howell goes as far as to call Paul’s talk an open lecture reminiscent of the great orators of Athens. At the very least, Paul shows that he was conversant with the Hellenistic world and used it to further his mission.