2000 years ago in the city that we now know as the Greek capital, Paul stood up in the Areopagus, looked from the statue of the unknown God to the men who worshipped him and declared “Men of Athens, I can see that you are very religious”.
The tone Paul took was deliberately ambiguous. It applauded their realisation that there is more to life than what is merely physical but also asked them to come further, from a suspicion that there is something to a knowledge of everything.
2000 years later in another capital city the International Presbyterian Church has just met for its Catalyst conference under the title Areopagus Now. Four speakers spoke on The Christ, The Culture, The Problem and the Gospel of Apologetics.
Rehashing a conference in a report is a bit like showing someone your holiday photos so just a few observations of three days in London.
- It was lovely to be at a conference, any conference, after so long away from normality. Yes masks were a nuisance and covid killed the bookstall but otherwise it felt like the old days. Long may that continue.
- I tried an IBIS hotel, and I liked it! Clean, quiet and half the price of a Premier Inn. Breakfast was a little perfunctory but otherwise I’d happily book again.
- Everybody loves Wales. I wore my football shirt on the day Wales played Turkey People were winding their windows down and stopping me in the street to wish us luck! Cymru am byth!
- Don’t judge a book by its cover. After such a long time doing church online I was craving some real fellowship so I attended the conference in spite of the topic. Three days of Nineteenth century Dutch theologians and discussion on apologia felt a tiny bit daunting but the speakers were deeply committed to Christ, and eager to equip us to share ancient truths with the modern world. I loved the whole approach and will definitely consider going again next year.
- Wow, drinks are expensive in London. This wasn’t a surprise to me, I’d heard whisperings, but one night the dinner was barely more expensive than the drink. Bonkers.
- Amazon Fresh. Another thing I’d heard about in the rural wilds of North Wales but something I never thought I would have the opportunity to use. If you’ve not heard of Amazon Fresh it’s a supermarket but with no checkout. Simply download the Amazon app, take what you want and walk out. They charge your Amazon account later. I used it three nights running, deliberately tried to trick the system to see what would happen but it always knew exactly what I’d bought. Magic!
- Magnetic points. Dan Strange’s work on engaging with the culture seems to me to be vital work. As he pointed out many evangelistic approaches still assume that people in our culture are from the generation whose parents went to church and so are still considering the world from a basically biblical position. But the reality is that our culture is far beyond that. Generations of people have no biblical knowledge at all and so we need to understand where they are and what they are thinking before we can engage them.
Dan identified a sense among Christians that we are philosophically very far apart from our neighbours. He argues that in one way we are but that, at the same time we all have a sense of God in our heart. If the Christian is willing to listen and diagnose he will find certain magnetic points in the unbeliever that are found in the gospel.
- a) A WAY TO CONNECT: As individuals we feel small and insignificant but we also feel connected to something bigger than ourselves. We enjoy communal awareness and crave connection. Pride marches, model railway clubs, online communities, Goths; everyone is looking for a way to connect. Humans are a conundrum, asserting their individuality and yet craving opportunities to be individual together.
- b) A WAY TO LIVE: Our culture has systematically crumbled and broken down traditional norms in the pursuit of freedom. But the same people who broke down barriers are now often finding themselves victims of a new puritanism. We cannot live without rules, we are a rules based people. If there are transcendent norms of behaviour which apply to all people then who wrote them and where can they be found?
- c) A WAY OUT: The constant, unending breaking of rules constantly and unendingly reminds us that there is something not quite right in the world. We mourn for a ‘paradise lost’ and yearn to be free of craving and temptation. What does the gospel say to this?
- d) A WAY WE CONTROL: Although we know we are active in the world we also know there is something beyond our control. This manifests in superstition. An example of this that I noticed recently was at a job interview. The candidate was extremely well prepared, and fabulously knowledgable about his field but at one point he said ‘touch wood’ before frantically looking around the room for a piece of wood to touch. What was going on in the mind of that professional, educated man if not a sense that some things are beyond his (or anyone else’s) control?
- e) A WAY BEYOND: People everywhere, in every generation, perceive that behind all reality is a greater reality. It is variously conceived but is always a superior power.
The argument Dan strange is making is that we stand in Paul’s shoes. We all look out at the people we meet and see ‘that they are very religious’. With this conviction in mind we can begin the work of identifying the ways people look at the world and respond first by questioning these assumptions and secondly by providing an alternative explanation viz. the gospel.
- Although organised by the International Presbyterian Church this didn’t feel like a denominational conference, indeed, if there was any mention of the IPC I missed it. There was a great deal of confidence within the gathering for Reformed Theology and a great awareness of those attending, where they were from and what they were doing. It felt healthy, positive, exciting, refreshing. This study conference was equipping us for the duties of ministry and discipleship — there was much Bible study involved!
You can see all the conference addresses at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCR-LQHrroj5iysq9HMe6vqQ
There are also heaps of resources from conferences past at https://ipc.church/resources