Re-evaluation of our evangelism
We do not need to speak of secrets in the early church as far as its evangelistic success was concerned. A prayerful and concerned look at the documents they left posterity (the New Testament) will inform us and resolve all doubt.
Today's church is in bad need of reformation in most areas of her theology and in her mission.
The early church impacted the world. For them to evangelize was so to present Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit that men come to put their faith in God through Him, to receive Him as their Saviour and necessarily to serve Him as their absolute King in the fellowship of His church. For them evangelism was not individualistic; it was a corporate effort. It was not a system; they adopted no four spiritual laws, making out of the gospel a hackneyed formula that, being so simplistic, made no sense to their audience. For them evangelism was not the task of the ordained ministry alone; rather the elders trained the saints to evangelize and reach out to a lost world (Eph.4). For them evangelism was not man-made propaganda; God was intimately involved in it. For them evangelism often cost them their own comfort; they were persecuted, maltreated, discriminated against, and even martyred.
Does this speak to us? Is this the picture we have of the modern evangelist who most of the time visits places where an evangelical witness is already established, and preaches in the milieu of the church with, perhaps, visitors attending?
The early Christians were culturally deprived, they had hardly any academic learning, they had no heirachical organizations, and yet they turned the world upside-down. We have all the advantages and yet the world does not even pay attention, let alone be changed by the message. Something is wrong somewhere; and it's not hard to know where.
We specialize in getting to know the culture, and in becoming sensitive to the needs of the people. But the impact at the end of the day is almost nil. By contrast, the early church was confronted with tremendous handicaps: no equipment, no large numbers, no literature, and yet, using their mouth and their feet, they did the work. They went; they spoke; the Lord added to His church!
Christianity for them was not a comfortable extra added to their lives to bring it somewhat more in shape. No, they were dedicated: "For me to live is Christ." They experienced a joyful sense of discovery: "Christ in you, the hope of glory." Theirs was a transparent love: they shared their goods together, quite spontaneously and willingly. They endured hardship; they were not chocolate soldiers, that melted under the first exposure to heat. They were concerned for those outside; they wanted them in to taste and see that the Lord is good. They had an awesome sense of responsibility: "I am innocent of the blood of all of you, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:26,27). Their priorities were straightened out: they knew what was absolutely essential and what was desirable (Acts 6:4). They stuck to the God-given mandate. The power of their lives was evident: their conversion was genuine and transforming (1 Cor.6:11). "Our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full assurance" (1 Thess.1:5).
This could happen again. It did happen during the time of the Protestant Reformation where thousands upon thousands were given sight of the glory of the all-sufficient Christ; it happened again during Whitefield's and Edwards's time. It could happen again!
I am not trying to ignore the heresy and immorality that regularly harassed the early church. The New Testament gives us a picture of living vibrant churches that were not lacking in doctrinal and ethical problems. But they dealt with the problems and fought them. Generally they exercised local church discipline, and when they didn't they were severely reprimanded (1 Cor.5). And they were regularly taught the fundamentals of the faith and fellowshipped with each other (Acts 2:42).
The quality of the apostolic church was distinctive. Here was a church devoted to every member ministry. Here was a church which cared: about new believers, about the hungry, the widows, the orphans, the poor, the underprivileged. But it was not a short-sighted church: they cared about those who had never heard the gospel.
It was also a church where the koinonia was real (Acts 13:1ff); whose leadership was shared according to the biblical pattern; whose worship was dynamic, with unity and variety and the same time, with fasting and prayer, with order, spontaneity and silence before the God of all the earth. No orchestra to dull the senses, no noise to awaken the depressed. It was an obedient church, walking in the precepts and commandments of the Lord.
It was a church which looked beyond itself, having a visionary outreach, remarkable and impressive. Sending out evangelists such as Paul and Barnabas, or Paul and Silas. It spoke out the Word, as the Lord made it clear that it was to all people, to all whom they met, in the marketplace, in the synagogue, in the streets, at their workplace.
The apostolic church held doctrine in prominence and foundational to all other aspects of its life and prosperity. Its deacons were able to present apologetic speeches that confuted the enemies (Acts 7), and budding teachers were taken care of, as, for instance, Prisca and Aquila took Apollos and showed him the way of the Lord more correctly.
It was a church with one overmastering passion. Its members were soon called Christians (Acts 11:26), a nickname that showed that its members were devoted to Jesus Christ, just as the Augustiani were employed by Augustus, loyal and committed to him. This was the supreme secret of an evangelistic church: one that has a single passion - only Jesus. No encumbrances, no cobwebs that blur the vision. Only Jesus, in all His glory and majesty. The King by whose command they operated.
They looked for conversions, and expected real conversions to happen. They looked for touched consciences, for minds to be opened, for wills to be reached and bent to obedience, for transformed lives. To this end they spoke to a need, a real spiritual needs; not about the abolition of slavery, or the emancipation of women, primarily, but about the liberty of the soul through Christ. They therefore told of Jesus: of Jesus as fulfillment of the Old Testament Scriptures; of Jesus as the Perfect Man, of Jesus the Divine Messiah; of Jesus crucified, making atonement for sin; of Jesus risen; of Jesus exalted and reigning, and therefore of a contemporary Jesus.
They offered a gift, in Christ's name, the gift of eternal life. And they expected a response. They did not mean to just influence society; they wanted to win society for Jesus Christ.
Their motives in evangelism were God-honouring. They bothered because of God's love; because of Christ's command; because of the Holy Spirit's thrust. They knew the terror of the Lord and therefore sought to persuade men; they were conscious of their responsibility. They counted it a privilege to proclaim Christ. They knew other people's needs, for Jesus had come to seek and to save those who are lost (Luke 19:10). Their engagement in world-evangelism brought them great joy (1 Thess.1:5,6), even though with joy there was affliction too.
In the light of such a tremendous beginning, we should all the more evaluate what evangelists we, as churches, are supporting, and what type of evangelists are we proving to be in the midst of our own society.
The early church evangelists presented themselves as ambassadors of the King, not as entertainers. No wishy-washy presentation of the gospel, take it or leave it. They went for every-member witness (Acts 8:1,4), and they were trained for this by their elders who themselves were to set the example and preach nothing but the Word, whether it be in season or out of season (2 Tim.4:2,5). The following principles were prominent:
1. They worked outwards from the centre (Acts 1:8). Paul had plans and a system in his evangelism; nothing haphazard (Romans 15:22-25).
2. They concentrated on the 'godfearing fringe,' that is, the Jews who already had an acquaintance with the Scriptures.
3. They ran a lot of home meetings (Acts 17:5; 18:7; 21:8; 12:12; 2:46; 5:42; 10:22). Paul rented a house in Rome and invited the Jews in, and testified solemnly to them about the kingdom of God.
4. They loved to discuss on neutral ground (Acts 22; 2 Tim.4:16,17). The market-place was an ideal spot.
5. They wrote and disseminated literature. What is the New Testament but a collection of correspondence and records. But they wrote apologies too, and treatises addressed to emperors and men in high places.
6. They engaged in missionary journeys.
7. They relied on personal talks. Mass evangelism is fine, but it must be backed with personal contacts.
Today's church is neglecting to follow the God-given pattern; it has even been foolish enough to adopt worldly methods thinking that she's wiser than God. We must take God's vision to heart, and adopt it as our own. God's gospel is still powerful and effective. But it must be sounded by clean vessels, such as God desires.
My appeal is that we should start with our own local church and patiently face the current, challenging our brethren in love to see that the New Testament pattern is still valid. We have no right to lay it on the shelf.