Insights from Green’s "Evangelism in the Early Church", pt. 1

Green’s book makes a unique contribution to our understanding of Evangelism in the Early Church. His work is unique in that it is both a wonderful examination of relevant New Testament material and a thorough study of the church’s evangelistic methods for the first three centuries of its missions endeavors. Here are a few of the key insights, mostly practical, I have gleaned from Green’s work.

First, while Green does a very good job of detailing the providential conjunction of circumstance in the first century that were very advantageous to the birth of the new Christian movement, he does an equally good job of describing the massive obstacles that the early Christians faced. The message of a crucified Messiah who was, in fact, the LORD of the Hebrew Scripture, put the early church immediately at odds with the Jews (though they were themselves, by and large, Jews). Green explains in his chapter titled “Evangelizing the Jews” that the hostility was heightened by the Christians claim to be the true Israel, their ‘theft’ of the Hebrew Scriptures, their disregard for the Law and the “spiritualizing” of Israel’s sacred rites. Being pushed out from their Jewish home the early Christians were not welcomed with open arms in the broader Graeco-Roman culture either. There they were met with suspicion due, in part, to wild rumors of immorality and their refusal to participate in the imperial cult and much of civil life. To these obstacles were added several intellectual obstacles: Christianity was new, it was ridiculous and it was culturally inferior. Moreover, it was narrow. Christians didn’t lobby to add Jesus to the pantheon, but declared he was the only hope of salvation and called upon people leave their idols to worship the one and true God. This was a wonderful reminder of how difficult the mission of the church was (and is) and how heroic the early churches effort was. As Green comments, “If they had stopped to weigh up the probabilities of succeeding in their mission, even granted their conviction that Jesus was alive and that his Spirit went with them to equip them for their task, their hearts must surely have sunk, so heavily were the odds weighted against them (29).” It also points to the importance of the Spirit in their early endeavors. The task was impossible if it were not for the power of the Spirit at work in the early church.

The task before the church today is also daunting. We need to take courage from the work of those early Christians and learn lessons from them about reliance on the Spirit and faith in Christ whose church we labor to build.

The second theme that struck me as practically important was the adaptability of the early Christians. Green comments, “the proclamation of the early Christians [was] united in its witness to Jesus, varied in its presentation of his relevance to the varied needs of the listeners, urgent in the demand for decision (pg. 101).” Green thoroughly describes the various methods, places and persons involved in the mission task. To the Jews the early evangelists quoted Scripture to show Jesus as the Messiah and the fulfillment of the promises of God. While the message continued to be thoroughly biblical, the evangelists did not quote nearly as much Scripture to those who were unfamiliar with it. Instead they quoted poets and philosophers and emphasized Jesus as Lord instead of Jesus as Messiah. With the Jews the early witnesses to Jesus could cut to the gospel chase. Among the pagans however there was a good deal of remedial work that needed to be done, namely an attack on idolatry, a proclamation of the one true God and exploration of the moral implications of this proclamation (pg. 179). This ‘translation’ of the gospel from one milieu to another was not without its dangers, but it was absolutely necessary. Green reminds us that “Evangelism is never proclamation in a vacuum, but always to people, and the message must be given in terms that make sense to them (pg. 165)”

Beyond the translation of the message, the early evangelists were also very adept with regards to the methods they employed. The early Christians evangelized in public places and in homes. They went to the upper echelons’ of society and to the working class and poor. They sometimes won people with a carefully reasoned argument and sometimes through displays of the Spirit’s power over demons and disease. The modern church can and should learn from the early church and be ready and willing to adapt new methods and do the hard work of faithfully translating the gospel message across cultures. It is incredibly easy to become tethered to one specific approach to evangelism (i.e. home visitation, the Four Spiritual Laws, Evangelism Explosion, friendship evangelism, etc.). All of these approaches have value and can be used by God to reach different kinds of people. We ought to allow ourselves to become comfortable in sharing the gospel in a variety of ways and allow freedom to others as well. It makes sense that our approach to a college student who has grown up in the church but has never made a personal faith commitment will be very different than our approach with a professor of religious studies who is hostile to the narrowness of Christianity just as Paul’s approach to the philosophers was different than his approach to God fearing Lydia. Green concludes, “When Christians have the will to speak of their Lord, they find no shortage of ways in which to do it (386).”

This diversity of approach is also the byproduct of the fact that every baptized believer considered it his privilege and duty to spread the good news of Jesus Christ. It was not just the itinerant evangelists and the professional missionaries that were commending Jesus to the people. Everyone from the intellectual theologians to the believing slave, from the bishops to wealthy aristocrats took it upon themselves to sow the seed. Thus the proclamation took on the ‘personality’ of those active in evangelistic work of the church. Again, there is much we need to learn from their example. Evangelism has increasingly been seen as the calling of the professionals or the privilege of those with the gift of evangelism (interestingly, the proportion of people who claim to have the gift of evangelism is shockingly low compared to those who claim to have the other gifts. Maybe, just maybe, it’s because so few people have tried to be an evangelist and so haven’t experienced the working of the Spirit in this way?!). As a pastor I see calling people and motivating people to be Christ’s ambassadors as an important focus, one that I have honestly been negligent in.

More to follow…