Evangelism in the Early Church
Keith Bintley, Bishops Stortford, England [SEE PROFILE BELOW]
Have you ever seen a church planted or adults turn to Christ in significant numbers? For Western Christians today these experiences are all too rare, but were commonplace in the early church.
A collection of a hundred or so Galileans celebrating the resurrection of Christ led to a movement which ‘turned the world upside down’. Monotheistic Jews and polytheistic pagans alike turned to the message of Christ. Of course the book of Acts charts the growth of the church under the sovereign influence of the Holy Spirit, but the movement could easily have petered out once the excitement and miraculous ceased. Of the thousands won for Christ, many were from the aristocracy; men and women gave their fortunes over to the church, renouncing all worldly goods. Perhaps most significant of all, the Emperor Constantine was apparently converted to Christianity and made it the state religion. Who would not be thrilled to live in such days? But before we romanticise this era or think it idyllic, we need to remember early church blessing involved men and women whose lives were starkly different to our own.
Every Christian was an evangelist
The early church regarded evangelism as the duty of every Christian, not the preserve of the specialist. This is borne out in the recorded preaching of John Chrysostom, (AD 344-407), one of the most eloquent preachers of any generation. His very name was given to him as a compliment, for Chrysostom means ‘golden mouthed’ which reflected his eloquent preaching. His preaching was not unduly ‘flowery’ or merely entertainment as you will see from the extract below. It was direct, forceful and pertinent, preached in a most helpful expository manner, that is he preached through Bible books and passages consecutively, applying scripture from the context in which it was found. The following lengthy extract is from a series of his sermons on the book of Acts:
‘There is nothing colder than a Christian who does not work for the salvation of others. You cannot use poverty as an excuse; the widow who threw in her two small coins will accuse you, Luke. 21. 2-4. Peter said, ‘Silver and gold have I none’, Acts 3. 6. Paul was so poor, he often went hungry and lacked even necessary food, Phil. 4. 12. And being lower-class by birth is no excuse either. The apostles were obscure men from obscure families. Or are you uneducated? That is no excuse. The apostles were illiterate, Acts 4. 13. Are you weak in body? That is no excuse. Timothy was a person who suffered from frequent illnesses, 1 Tim. 5. 23. Everyone can save his neighbour if only he is willing to play his part.
Look at the trees which bear no fruit. See how strong and majestic and smooth and tall they are. But if we had a garden, we would much rather have pomegranates and fruitful olive trees. The tall fruitless trees are pleasing to the eye but they are of no practical use, or very little. They are like people who are concerned only about themselves. Such people are fit for burning! (At least the trees are useful for shelter and making houses out of them). Such self-centred people were the foolish virgins, who were chaste, discreet and self-controlled, but did not serve others, Matt. 25. 1-13. Therefore they were delivered over for burning. Such also were those who did not feed Christ, Matt. 25. 41-48. Christ does not accuse them of personal sins, adultery, swearing falsely, or anything like that; He merely accuses them of not being any practical service to others. Such a self-centred person was the man who buried his talent, Luke. 19. 11-28. His private life was spotless – but he never served his neighbour. How can such a person be a Christian? I ask you, if you mixed leaven with flour but it did not make it rise, would it still be leaven? if a perfume did not fill a room with fragrance, would we still call it perfume?‘.
Did you read the extract? I hope you did, because it is impossible to do so without being humbled and challenged. How many preachers would dare preach like that lest they be accused of hypocrisy or offend many. Chrysostom’s plain speaking certainly got him into hot water. Although he was immensely popular with the ‘ordinary’ Christians in Constantinople, his strong denunciations made him powerful enemies amongst the ruling political class and he eventually died during his final enforced exile. Nonetheless, his record is strong evidence for the aggressive evangelism practised in the grass roots of the church.
The Christians were zealous in their living
We have already seen how many early Christians suffered terribly at the persecution meted out to them by a number of the Roman emperors. Perhaps less dramatically, but equally as telling, Christians found themselves at odds with society. Official state occasions and holidays involved worship of the gods which included the emperor. Public entertainment depicted pagan religion and sexual immorality, and hospitals employed pagan priests. Many Christians would not send their children to the schools where pagan religions were taught. Employment choice was restricted. For example, Christian artists found employment fraught with difficulty as their clientele demanded pagan symbols. Due to the incidence of idol and emperor worship in military and governmental spheres many believers shunned these professions. The litmus test of a loyal citizen was whether or not he would offer incense to idols. Christians opposed abortion, infanticide, the brutal public games and easy divorce. At best Christians were regarded as ‘kill-joys’, anti-social, or self righteous and at worst, dangerously narrow minded and a threat to the emperor’s claims as lord.
Some Christians hid themselves away in monastic self-exile and perhaps became unduly introspective. Thankfully, many others like Chrysostom maintained their costly witness resulting in the watching world seeing the reality of knowing Jesus Christ as Lord and its profound affect on His followers’ lives.
The Christians were highly motivated
Let us not suppose that able preaching alone sustained early Christians in their fervent living for Christ. From the days of Stephen, Acts 7, it is apparent that God’s people had their sights fixed firmly on the cross of Christ, His return and the judgement of the world. Why else would anyone give up this life, unless they lived for the one to come?
Of the cross of Christ, Justin Martyr (d. AD 165) could write:
‘O sweet exchange!
O unsearchable work!
O blessings that surpass
Of the return of Christ, the historian Eusebius of Caesarea recorded the final words spoken by James the Lord’s brother at his martyrdom:
‘Why do you ask me about the Son of Man? I tell you, He is sitting in heaven at the right hand of the great Power, and He will come on the clouds of heaven’.
Of the judgement of God in the ancient hymn Te Deum includes the words:
‘We believe that You will come
again to be our Judge,
We therefore pray that You will
help your servants . . .
O Lord, in You have I trusted;
let me not be put to shame
at the last day!’
Notice please that there is a fearful anticipation of the Christ’s evaluation of His people as servants. Jesus Christ was everything to them and they dared not fail Him.
Methods of evangelism
I have deliberately left this section until last because methodology is secondary by far to motivation. The Christians simply lived and died for Christ, they had ‘fire in their belly!’ That is not to say the early church lacked methods. Michael Green selects eight of these æmethods’ in his analysis of the New Testament evangelism which became a pattern for the following centuries. I have set out his list below, but there is no substitute for reading his detailed explanation:
- They went for every-member witness;
- They worked outwards from the centre (i.e. evangelism flowed from the spiritual vibrancy and warmth of the local church);
- They concentrated on the ‘God-fearing fringe’ (i.e. existing ‘warm’ contacts such as family, friends, neighbours and colleagues rather than strangers);
- They ran a lot of home meetings;
- They loved to discuss on neutral ground (i.e., ‘out reach’ should not be ‘drag in’);
- They wrote and used literature;
- They engaged in ‘missionary journeys’;
- They relied on personal talks.
Similarly, we have an abundance of opportunity and no lack of materials, but do we lack the courage to be bold in our evangelism?
In every discussion on evangelism we must first acknowledge the sovereign work of God to save and regenerate through His Spirit. It is also clear that in those early days of blessing many Christians’ hearts were brightly aflame for Christ, anxious for His return, ready to be evaluated and filled with the Holy Spirit. A tall order perhaps?
The earliest disciples no doubt thought so too, and just after the resurrection some were drifting back to their trades, John 21. 3. But the Lord encouraged them and used them despite their fears and despite their weakness. As Chrysostom reminds us, we too are left with few excuses!
1. Oxford Concise Dictionary of the Christian Church, Ed. E. A. Livingstone, Oxford, 2000.
2. Evangelism-now and then, Michael Green, Leicester Inter-Varsity Press, 1979.
3. 2000 Years of Christ's Power, N. R. Needham, Grace Publications, 1997