Acts 17 recounts Paul's ministry in Athens and his sermonizing on Mars Hill. Paul's approach was to start with the religion of the Greeks and show that the God they were looking for was Jesus. He says to them in v. 22, "Men of Athens, I see that you are very religious in all respects." In v. 28, he quotes some of their poets. His sermon is logical, intelligent, and contextualized.
At first glance, Acts 17 seems like strong evidence that the church should be engaged in confronting high culture of its day. After all, that's what Paul did on Mars Hill. But is that what Acts 17 is really saying?
The Book of Acts says a lot of stuff about what happened in the first century church. Some of it is descriptive (i.e. "this is what happened") and some of it is prescriptive (i.e. "this is what happened and should happen"). In Acts 15, Paul and Barnabas get into a heated disagreement so that they part ways. Is this a model of what should happen to ministry teams, or just what did happen to one ministry team?
In the same way, is Acts 17 what should be our approach to culture, or what was one approach to culture? Does Luke give us any clues?
It's interesting to note that Luke never praises Paul's approach as a model for ministry. In fact, he even subtly mocks the Athenians for wasting their time philosophizing (17:21). Paul's sermons don't lead to thousands converting to Christ. In fact, the crowd mocks him when he's done (17:32). Only a few believe (17:34). We never see the city of Athens featuring prominently in church history, nor do we have a letter from Paul written to the church there. If Paul on Mars Hill is a model for ministry, it’s a mediocre model at best.
But note what happens after Athens. Paul’s next project was Corinth. Paul says about his ministry in Corinth:
For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and I will thwart the cleverness of the intelligent." Where is the wise man? Where is the expert in the Mosaic law? Where is the debater of this age? Has God not made the wisdom of the world foolish? For since in the wisdom of God the world by its wisdom did not know God, God was pleased to save those who believe by the foolishness of preaching. For Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks ask for wisdom, but we preach about a crucified Christ, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. But to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. (1 Corinthians 1:18–25)Is Paul contrasting here his ministry in Corinth with that in Athens? Did Paul learn a lesson in Athens? Can we possibly view Acts 17 as a failure in ministry, maybe even an epic one that caused Paul to rethink his philosophy of ministry?
When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come with superior eloquence or wisdom as I proclaimed the testimony of God. For I decided to be concerned about nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and with much trembling. My conversation and my preaching were not with persuasive words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith would not be based on human wisdom but on the power of God. (1 Corinthians 2:1–5)
I am not advocating anti-intellectualism. Far from it. But I am not sure we are ever going to win over the popular culture with our message. It is, after all, foolishness. Maybe instead we can focus on being so much like Jesus, so "foolish," that our message becomes irresistible.