What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?"
Tertullian's famous question has remained relevant through the years as the church has grappled with how to respond to the pagan academy. As someone who has spent most of his life in "Athens" (most recently near Yale University), I now find myself in a sort of "Jerusalem." Four years ago, I moved to a "Jerusalem," a culturally Christian environment (across the street from Wheaton College).
That journey has afforded me the opportunity to compare the experience of communicating the gospel in two distinct contexts.
You might assume living in a place with few fellow Christians would be difficult, and in some ways it is. But it also has a sharpening effect. Being forced to rely upon God in a hostile envi-ronment, to trust him for answers to the most troubling intellectual assaults, either buoys you up or sinks you. In a more religious context you may be less likely to sink, but complacency is sometimes just as great a danger.
A secular atmosphere presents challenges not only to living out your faith but also to sharing the gospel. Reading Acts shows that different contexts require different approaches. Paul aimed to become "all things for all people," and Jesus himself employed different approaches to reach different people.
Secular people do not stay away from church because our services or programs do not match their tastes. It's not because they find a church's childcare subpar, or the parking inconvenient, or the music unappealing. It's because they don't think Christianity is true. Many of them think Christianity is nonsense.
When I worked in one secular context, a Christian organization would regularly send material touting the benefits of their newest programs. I remember thinking that it felt as if they were trying to persuade people to buy Coca-Cola instead of Pepsi when the reality was that the people around me did not want soft drinks at all. This organization needed to do the prior work of explaining that the gospel was true before explaining why their programs were so great.
In secular contexts preaching the gospel effectively means constantly answering the ques-tion, "Is this really true?" Mention the Bible and secular people are likely thinking, It's just a bunch of fairy tales. Talk about prayer and they think Freudian wish fulfillment. Tell them about the comfort of Christian fellowship and they think, Religious crutch for intellectual weaklings. Most have a respect for Jesus but regard him as a guru or interesting person, not the divine Son of God.
A faithful presentation of the gospel doesn't ignore these objections. Instead we must do the hard work of making a case for the veracity of Christian faith and addressing their specific concerns. For them, the gospel won't be good news until they know that it is true.
In a culturally Christian context, the situation is different. While religious people are often more influenced by postmodern secular ideas than we might realize, the Christian worldview is largely intact and the basic assumption holds that most Christian doctrines are true.
Spending most of the time telling such a person that the gospel is true is like selling ice at the North Pole. They already know it's true. What they want to know is whether it's real. Will this gospel change how I live? Will it solve the everyday problems I face? Is the gospel more compelling than materialism?
We live in a global village and secular ideas influence people in almost any locale, so we always need to establish the truth of the gospel. However for those in a religious context, we must stress the real difference the gospel makes in their lives.