A good friend in Kansas City told me how awkward he feels in broaching the subject of faith. We both agree that religion is treated like cigarette smoking today – it’s fine to smoke in private; but rude in public. So here he is – enjoying a summer cookout with his neighbors – and all he can muster up is: Where would you go if you died tonight? Or Do you ever think about spiritual things? Small wonder many people view the gospel as offensive. What does “going to heaven” have to do with burgers and beer? Those kinds of questions make the good news sound incoherent.
If you have ever faced this quandary, you’re in good company. Almost 2,000 years ago, the Apostle Paul was hanging around Athens, waiting for his buddies Silas and Timothy to join him.1 During that time, he was “preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.” But to the hearers – the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers – his message was incoherent. The Epicureans didn’t believe God was involved in human affairs. The Stoics believed a great “Purpose” directed history; but that life was marked by tragedy and triumph. When Paul began his message with Jesus, it was disconnected from their conversations. “What is this babbler trying to say?”
If you want to connect faith and everyday conversations, you have to start with what your friends have an appetite to discuss and serve the four-course gospel.
The first course.
The first course is the appetizer, which should stimulate the appetite! Paul learned that the Epicureans and Stoics gave a great deal of thought to worship. While roaming around Athens, he found an altar with this worship inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD (that’s what you get with a detached deity or an amorphous “Purpose”). Paul tees up the conversation: “Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.” And here’s the appetizer – the first course. Paul says they are inclined to worship because God created them. Creationis the first course – how the world ought to be.
The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth… he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. God did this so that men would seek him… though he is not far from each one of us. As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’
The second course.
The Epicureans and Stoics are like Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones (“I can’t get no satisfaction”). They’re probably thinking: If we’re hard-wired to worship God, why can’t we find him in our statues? Paul connects creation to their conundrum: “…since we are God’s offspring, we ought not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone…” The philosophers fail to realize God’s not in the rocks. “In the past God overlooked such ignorance,” continues Paul, “but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.” The second course is the ancient belief in the Fall – describing how the world really is.
Business guru Max Depree says the first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. In serving the first two courses of the four-course gospel, Paul has defined reality for the Epicureans and Stoics. They are made to worship ( Creation), but are disconnected from God (the Fall), so they are left worshiping AN UNKNOWN GOD.
The fourth course…the dessert.
Before serving the main course, Paul jumps to the fourth. “For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed.” The Epicureans assumed God was distant and the Stoics believed God never shows up. The problem is they’re wrong on both fronts – and Paul doesn’t want them eating their “just desserts.” God is involved (a judgment is coming) and has shown up (as a “man”). This fourth course is the ancient belief in the final Restoration. But who is “the man?”
The main course.
The main course is redemption offered by Jesus. But Paul is now able to connect Christ to the culture’s conversations. To the Epicureans, Paul says Jesus is God’s involvement in human affairs. To the Stoics, Paul says Jesus is the great “Purpose” – his life marked by tragedy and triumph (i.e., his death and resurrection). The One True God “has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.”
Think about it. Twenty-four hours earlier, Paul was “preaching Jesus and the resurrection” and sounded incoherent. A day later, the four-course gospel connected to the conversations taking place in Athens. This is why The Clapham Institute believes the good news is similar to a four-course meal (or what we call a “four chapter” Story) characterized by four types of conversations: (1) how things ought to be, (2) what is – i.e., what are things really like in the real world as a result of our shortcomings, (3) what we can do to make things better, and (4) what things will be like some day, when the world is fully restored. Jesus is the main course… but some of our friends need to have their appetites whetted first.
At your next summer cookout, listen carefully for what’s on your neighbors’ minds. They’re telling you what they have an appetite to talk about. Then see if you can serve the four-course gospel. If you connect your beliefs to burgers and beers, you’ve got something.