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Early Church Offers Important Evangelism Lessons

Learning from our past collective mistakes is essential to present-day success.
It is also true that learning from our past collective successes is vital to contemporary thriving.

The present context in which the Christian church finds itself – lower weekly attendance and membership, decline in giving and loss of favored status, to name a few issues – is challenging.

We need a new vision of evangelism that shifts from an “if you build it, they will come” mindset to one that reaches out in organic ways through day-to-day encounters.

Faced with declining attendance and budgets, we would be wise to look to the early fledgling Christian communities for guidance.

While Acts focuses on large-scale conversions, the Christian faith spread primarily through Christians sharing the good news with others as they went about their daily lives.

Sociologist Rodney Stark discusses this in detail in his book, “The Rise of Christianity,” but a brief quote from church historian Justo Gonzales’ “The Story of Christianity: Volume I” sufficiently illustrates the process:

“The ancient church knew nothing of ‘evangelistic services’ or ‘revivals’…. Evangelism did not take place in church services, but rather … in kitchens, shops and markets … It is clear that the enormous spread of the Gospel in those first few centuries was not due to full-time missionaries, but rather to the many Christians who traveled for other reasons.”

When I was serving in local churches, most of my time was spent preparing to teach, preach and lead worship services as well as in providing pastoral care to church members through regular calls and visits.

While I sought to be involved in the local community and to reach out to visitors and potential members, my daily responsibilities meant that the people with whom I interacted regularly were congregation members and other clergy.

Some ministers with more years of experience might share that my approach and focus was mistaken, or at least unbalanced. It might have been.

Others might suggest that it is a flaw within local churches’ understanding of their ministers’ role. It might be. Nevertheless, I imagine that my experience was typical.

To be well-prepared to preach and teach, to provide substantive leadership within the church, to attend all the requisite meetings, and to engage members through regular pastoral care visits require a great deal of time.

It also limits the people with whom a minister will have frequent interaction.

The good news, as I see it, is that at the beginning, the Christian church grew not as a result of seminary-trained full-time clergy, vocational missionaries, well-known celebrity evangelists, lofty cathedrals, Christian rallies or “one-size-fits-all” evangelistic techniques.

Rather, to quote Gonzales again, “most converts were made by anonymous Christians whose witness led others to their faith.”

This does not lessen the importance of educated clergy and missionaries. It offers a needed reminder that Christianity initially spread through the witness of those whose faith impacted how they related to others, conducted their business, treated their family and cared for those in need.

What this means for clergy, whose role in most congregations is to “equip the saints” (see Ephesians 4:12-16), is that they must connect the proclamation of God’s kingdom to its embodiment in our daily lives and emphasize the social capital local churches can offer.

They must also encourage members to be attentive to opportunities to invite others to embrace this way of living and to join them in these efforts.

Perhaps negative evangelistic experiences in the past led some of us to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. Yet, evangelism shouldn’t be abandoned because of negative experiences.

It doesn’t have to mean awkwardly inserting Jesus into every conversation. It also doesn’t require asking strangers, “Do you know the Lord?” and then, if they say “no,” launching into an explanation of why they need to be “saved” and that all they need to do is say “the sinners’ prayer” so that they can go to heaven when they die.

Experiences of wrongly motivated and poorly implemented evangelism shouldn’t deter us from sharing our faith in Jesus’ redemptive way of life.

Moderate Baptists, among other Christians, must overcome a reticence to evangelize.

We must reframe evangelism in a more positive light by reclaiming the importance of intentionally telling others about the glad news of Jesus’ way of life and inviting them to journey with us.

Do we wish to see the pursuit of justice, embodiment of mercy and encouragement of humility in our world increase (Micah 6:8)? Do we desire to see the Sermon on the Mount more widely practiced? Do we long for the hungry to be fed, the needy to be clothed, the stranger to be welcomed and those in prison to be visited (Matthew 25)?

If so, then evangelism is essential, because an increased ability to carry out these initiatives that are central to our calling hinges upon more people committing to living in the way of Jesus.

We would do well to remember that the often-critiqued “nickels and noses” focus isn’t misguided when the goal is transformed people who join together to make their homes, communities, cities and world a more just, equitable, compassionate, graceful place.

Zach Dawes is the managing editor for EthicsDaily.com.