When we think of a traveling preacher addressing a crowd, most of us conjure up an image like UNC’s (in)famous Pit Preacher. He stands up in the middle of a public space and loudly proclaims that everyone is going to hell because of their short skirts, rock music, and liberal politics. I imagine he thinks he’s “engaging the public square” with the gospel, much like Paul did in Acts 17.

I can’t speak to the Pit Preacher’s motives, but he’s certainly not the rightful heir to Paul in Acts 17. A quick look shows us that engaging the public square means something completely different. I see 5 insights for engaging people outside the Christian faith:

1. Grieve over idolatry (and do something about it).

When encountering idolatry in a culture, we tend to respond in one of two equally unbiblical extremes: either we share our culture’s idolatry, or we are so offended by it that we run away. But when Paul saw the idolatry of Athens for what it was, it broke his heart. And instead of running away from it in fear, he ran toward it in love.

That’s what Jesus did for us. He saw us in our idolatry and was provoked by it—but instead of writing us off, he ran toward us in love.

When we see the idolatrous structures of our society, will we respond the same way? Tim Keller points out that the largest buildings in a city reveal the idols of that city. For us in Raleigh-Durham, that means money, academic pride, and sports. So what is our response? Are we so impressed by the wealth and sporting prowess around us that we fail to see the idolatry of it? Or are we also grieved that these things are getting more glory than God?

To properly grieve over our culture’s idolatry, we need to spend time getting to know that culture. Paul was only able to grieve deeply over Athens’ idolatry because he had spent time getting to know it. Most of our missionaries overseas spend months and years studying cultures in order to understand the people they serve. The sad thing is, most of them have better insight into foreign cultures than we do into our own. We must become people who are deeply aware of our culture and able to dialogue with it—while remaining untainted by its idolatry.

2. Find points of agreement: “I can see you are searching for God.”

When Paul walks into Athens, he expands his normal pattern of evangelism. In every other city, Paul would find the local synagogue and show that Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament promises. He started with the synagogue in Athens, too (v. 17). But when Paul went into “the marketplace,” he knew that the Old Testament held no authority whatsoever. So instead he starts with their questions. He notices an altar to an “unknown god” (a “just in case” god, on the off chance that that the other thousands of statues in the city didn’t quite cover it), and the images of struggle all around their city, sees in those things a picture of their struggle for God, and starts there. “It looks like you’re searching for something here, aren’t you?”

Because God created us to worship, humanity is incurably religious. Even in the most supposedly secular society, the remnants of that worship drive are there. As Ecclesiastes says, God “has put eternity in man’s heart” (3:11), so that every person you meet is at some point in their religious search. Like the Athenians, they are probably not sure what they are searching for, but everyone asks questions about the world around them, about right and wrong, about their purpose and destiny—in short, about God. This search for God can and should be affirmed wherever possible.

So to atheists we can say, “I admire your passion for truth. I can see that you want to be an intellectually honest and moral person.” To non-believing parents we say, “I can see you really care about the future of your children.” To activists we say, “I’m touched by how compassionate you are and how much you want to see this broken world healed.”

3. ‘Blow the roof off’: “Is your approach to life working?”

Paul knows, of course, that it’s not enough to merely search for God. But his listeners don’t. So before presenting Jesus as the solution, Paul needs to show the Athenians that their current search isn’t leading anywhere. “Does it make sense,” he asks, “that the God who created everything could be contained in a temple?”

Paul does here what Francis Schaeffer calls “blowing the roof off” of a person’s belief system. Reveal the inner inconsistencies and logical problems with a person’s way of living, and they’ll be forced to seek shelter elsewhere. “I can see you searching for God,” Paul begins, but immediately follows with, “How is it turning out for you? Is your approach to life working?”

So when activists are concerned about global suffering, but seek to address it apart from the gospel, we ask, “It’s great that you want to give food and education to everyone. But is it working? Has education solved our problems here in the West? How can we avoid what every utopian attempt in history has ended in—tyranny?”

When we talk with people who say that morality is relative, that everyone is entitled to their own values, we ask, “Do you really believe that? Some societies believe that life works best when women are kept uneducated and hidden at home. Are you prepared to say that those moral values are equal, too?”

When we interact with people who have really given themselves to some idol—whether money or romance or success or family—we ask, “Is this working? Is this giving you the happiness and security it promised?” Do the most famous celebrities in our world seem like satisfied, happy, well-adjusted people? Are the richest people we know really more secure and less anxious because of their wealth? Is any of this going to sustain you after you die?

And if we can quote our culture’s “prophets” to further show the problem, we should do that. Contemporary news is ripe with reports of rich people musing about how there must be more to life than money, successful people wondering why their success hasn’t quite delivered, or beautiful people moving on to their second (or third or fourth…) marriage in search of the right romantic fit.

We don’t need to be experts on every philosophy out there. We just need to ask the questions, encourage people to be honest, and listen to their answers. Is the god you’re sacrificing for really worth it?

4. Demonstrate God’s greatness above their idols: “Your view of God is too small.”

One of the chief characteristics of all false religions is a truncated view of God. That’s what Paul goes after in Athens: “Your view of God is too small.”

Too many people talk about God as if he should be easy to explain. They want answers about God, but aren’t willing to accept answers that they don’t like: “Until God explains this to me and I can fully understand it, I simply won’t believe in him.” But if we’re talking about the infinite God, whose power and wisdom are insurmountably greater than our own, shouldn’t we expect that some aspects of his character would be beyond our imagination? As Evelyn Underhill said, “If God were small enough to be understood, he would not be big enough to be worshipped.”

The real God is transcendent and glorious, which means he is going to baffle you sometimes. And I’ll admit: that is often exceedingly frustrating. I don’t like unanswered questions any more than anyone else. But as soon as I suspect that I completely understand all of the ways of God, I’ve put him in so small a box that he’s no longer a God worth yearning after.

Deep down, don’t you know that? Don’t you have a yearning for a God who is more than a reflection of preconceived notions and cultural ideals? Isn’t that the sort of “unknown god” you have been searching for? And wouldn’t it be tragic if you rejected him—the most valuable being in the universe—because he wasn’t like you had expected?

5. Proclaim Jesus: “Who do you say that he is?”

Acts 17 doesn’t give much air-time to Paul’s presentation of the gospel, but we can tell where he’s headed. “The God you are looking for isn’t someone you can simply reason out,” Paul says. “He came to earth to give us proof of who he was.”

Jesus asked a question when he was on earth. It wasn’t, “Does this make sense?” or “Do you agree?” It was the most important question any of us would ever consider: “Who do you say that I am?” The real God comes not by clever explanations, but by divine illumination in the person of Jesus Christ. Truth did not come to us through a group of philosophers speculating idly on a hill in Athens; truth came in a God dying on a hill for us outside of Jerusalem.

The best apologetics in the world aren’t going to change people. What changes people is an encounter with Jesus Christ, the only God who died so that we might live. Religion and philosophy may speculate, “Who is right? What is true?” But in the end, the most important question is still, “Who do you say that I am?”