When Paul arrives in Athens in Acts 17, a fascinating tale of how he engages them emerges. He is provoked by and perceptive of his environment—he notices their religious symbols in particular. His subsequent engagements with the people in this city seem to be based on this.
Paul’s audience in Athens is not very different from your potential audience: “Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new” (Acts 17:21). They loved sharing and receiving information. This describes the times we live in very well!
There are many ways in which news media can be understood, and many more in which it can be misunderstood. It is a prominent part of our culture— and we can be prompted by it to engage non-believers with the gospel using some of the cues it gives us. Paul reasoned in the synagogues and marketplaces; we can do likewise in our context.
A grid from three media theories
As a journalist, I have studied the importance of media effect theories. These theories are not absolutes; they are helpful lenses through which we can understand the media and its effects on society. They do not all apply at all times to all people, but we can consider them as we seek ways to use the news to engage people with the gospel. I will introduce three theories and we will think through the ways in which they help us start gospel conversations.
But first, a theological caveat. The news is always saying something about God or man—mostly indirectly—because it’s always telling us about God’s creation. Therefore, the news is theological, an often flawed doctrine on God or a glimpse into the ‘gods’ of the world. The news offers assertions about mankind, even if the people you’re talking with don’t think of it that way.
The agenda-setting theory
The agenda-setting theory of the media states that mass media determines the issues that concern the public, rather than the public’s views. Under this theory, the issues that receive the most attention from the media become the issues that the public discusses, debates, and demands action on. We see a great irony here—people get consumed by what they consume. We talk about what the news wants us to talk about.
This isn't necessarily a bad thing—we can leverage it to initiate conversations with people we want to engage with God’s truth. I find asking pointed, news-based questions to be a good starting point: “What do you think about the whole mask thing? Why do you think of it that way?” Then listen. Be genuinely interested in their thoughts on the matter.
What questions do—at least over time—is create a level playing field for dialogue. Most people ask back the same question: “What do you think of it? And why?” That can open up some helpful gospel opportunities as you not only express your own opinions but show people how you are committed to someone greater than either ‘camp’ presented in the news. This can go poorly—they may get argumentative and defensive— yet it can be a starting point leading to more talk that concerns the salvation of their soul.
The magic bullet theory
In the 1930s, an experiment was done in the United States: radio listeners were told that Martians were invading the earth. Hysteria and confusion were some of the immediate responses from the audience.
The magic bullet theory assumes that a media message is ‘injected’ wholly into the recipient's brain and is accepted entirely at face value as is.
Now, of course, this is not always true, as individuals take the news differently. What we can understand though is that the media has such a grip on many people that if it’s on their favorite news source, they believe it. They will often express joy or fear solely on the basis of what they heard on the news. Our response to news items may be neutral, but frequently our responses reveal the idols of our hearts, whether those idols are the topic of the news or the news source itself.
Learning from Paul in Acts 17, the opportunity we have when people are especially fearful is that we can converse humbly and carefully show them the futility of their idols—those things or ideas we fear, live for, and are subject to.
Paul does not play games. He goes for the jugular in verse 23, addressing their “objects of worship”. The magic bullet theory can help us recognize and engage people whose “objects of worship” are expressed in their response to the news. Paul uses the opportunity to teach his listeners about the true God; we can do the same as we show people that we have a hope that is firmer than just a great economy, great policy, or favorable legislation!
We saw this play out recently as the news displayed images of people hoarding goods from grocery stores in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. What did those images trigger? Panic buying. This demonstrates the human condition as described in the Bible—we are flawed and selfish (2 Tim 3:2-4). The news media does not make us flawed, but it triggers us to be what we already are. (And it’s important to remember that we are not immune!)
Lots of good conversations can come out of these ‘strong effects’ the media has on people. We can ask questions and point out idols in gracious ways—and show the futility of them—while making a strong case for the God of the universe and his good news (Acts 17:24-27).
The uses and gratifications theory
This theory says that people use the media to gratify specific wants and needs. Unlike the previous theories that viewed consumers of media content as passive, this theory views them as active, with control over what they consume.
In essence, some people you will encounter watch the news channel they watch or read news on the websites they do simply because it gratifies a certain need. Examples would be surveillance (people are curious to know what’s going on), personal identity (consuming media that reinforces their beliefs and personhood), relationships (making bonds with figures we see in the media) or diversion (a need to pass the time).
There are a plethora of questions we can think to ask here. If we do this well, we can be on the way to conversations that show how there is no ultimate satisfaction or joy in the consumption of different pieces of news. We can even use the very figures and characters that they relate with to make this point! In Acts 17:28, Paul quotes a line possibly from Epimenides of Crete who was one of their poets, then another from Aratus. Their poets capture truth, but void of a true understanding of God.
I hope your mind has been stirred to think about the news and prayerfully consider how to use its cues to start gospel conversations. After Paul makes his case in Acts 17, the writer of the book says some people mocked him, others expressed interest at another time, but there were those who joined him and believed—including Dionysius and Damaris.
As you flip the channels or scroll the pages today, do so with a mission in mind. Be creative and faithful. Take some cues. Understand, using these media theories, how people interact with the media and news, and check your own reactions. Start the conversation. Perhaps, in God’s kindness, as you show the folly of the world’s idols, the Dionysius and Damaris in your life may come to faith.