There has been no perfect period in church history. The first-century Church must not be over-idealized. According to theologian Walter Elwell, in the New Testament epistles alone, the Church had to be corrected some 150 times.1 We must always be careful to avoid projections and over-idealizations of any time or place.
Nevertheless, the early Church still has much to say to us today, and it is wise to be attentive to its lessons. There are two mistakes that can be made about traditions of the past: (1) to reject the past altogether as archaic and irrelevant and move on to questions of the present and (2) to be dominated by the past, letting the calcifying conventions of days gone by tyrannize healthy communal development.
G. K. Chesterton says a proper understanding of the past is to make some accommodation so its voice might still be heard. Every time a given age sits at the table to consider an event or challenge, it should always give a seat to the voice of the past. It is, according to Chesterton, democracy extended through time.2
A true grasp of tradition gives a vote to the dead. This way, the wisdom of the past is not neglected and the challenges of the day benefit by such wisdom while also being infused with fresh ideas. Bringing this kind of balance into the discussion, we must consider:
- Does the early Church contribute anything to today’s Church relative to its mission in the world?
- What are the ways Christians in the past shared their faith in Christ, and can that positively affect the ways Christians share Christ with others today?
When Jesus gathered his disciples to himself, he used one of two methods.
- Contact evangelism. Jesus simply came to some and called them to follow. One example of this is Matthew. There may have been an earlier relationship that existed between Matthew and Jesus, but there is no textual reference to it.
Therefore, it can be imagined that Jesus simply encountered some people and called them into relationship. Similarly, some people can be led to Christ after an initial contact. It is wise to be sensitive to how the Spirit of God may be moving in any given conversation as he woos others to himself through us.
- Relational evangelism (i.e., “webs of relationship”). In John 1, Andrew went and brought his brother, Peter, to Jesus. Likewise, Phillip found his friend, Nathaniel. So too, God may have us share Christ through friendships we already have. We must not neglect the fact that God often reaches out through established relationships in order to make Christ known in the world.
Both contact evangelism and relational evangelism have their risks. In contact evangelism, the difficulty is in trying to find natural segues for the gospel with a person we have only just met. It is also difficult to establish creditability. On the other hand, an old friend or family member who knows our history also knows our shortcomings. This can harm our message. We must confess personal failures and testify to the love and forgiveness of God and its ongoing power to forgive and transform. When this occurs, even our failures can be an asset when sharing Christ.
Learning from the Early Disciples
The disciples engaged in both kinds of evangelism. There is much we can learn from those who first took the gospel to others. The Book of Acts certainly makes a case for contact evangelism:
- Paul talks one-on-one with others in the marketplace.
- Philip speaks with the Ethiopian eunuch whom he just met on the Gaza road.
- Cornelius reaches out to Peter so that Peter might share the gospel to the entire web of family relations in Cornelius’ household.
But the Gospels and the Book of Acts speak of other kinds of evangelism as well:
- Jesus addresses and shares the gospel with large crowds of people.
- At the Feast of Pentecost, Peter preaches openly about Jesus in the public square.
- Paul goes to the partially-informed people gathered at the synagogue; that is, he reaches out to those with an affinity for religion but who have not yet encountered a relationship with the living Christ.
- Paul uses letters to present the gospel to others. (Today’s equivalent of email and social networking provides ample opportunity to do something like this.)
What can we learn from the approaches employed by the early Church to reach others for Christ?
- They were men and women whose lives were transformed demonstrably by the love and forgiveness of Christ, and it was out of a full heart they shared the gospel with others. When we neglect to share Jesus with others, we might ask if a fresh rekindling of God’s love needs to be generated so that his grace may again flow freely.
- Early Christians, whose love burned hot for Christ, found obedience to the Great Commission. Their great desire was to tell the world about Jesus death and resurrection for the forgiveness of sins. They proved themselves faithful to the call of God in their lives.
- Whether it was to the one unknown person in a public place, to the gathering of a small group of friends and acquaintances invited to hear about Christ, or to an assembled crowd, early church members made the most of the opportunities before them.
- Early Christians appeared to demonstrate great creativity manifest in the ways they continually sought to share the gospel. This should inspire all who read the New Testament to look for fun and creative ways to make Christ known to others.
- Early Christians were not willing to let fear keep them from the joy of telling others about Jesus.
While no period in church history has ever had it all together, one thing can be said about the early Church: they were bold about fulfilling their calling to make Christ known to others. In this regard, they have much to tell the Church in every age. The hope for the Church in all times, whatever mistakes may be made in any period of history, is that the Body of Christ not neglect the high call of making Christ known to the world.
1. Comments made to me in conversation in the late 1980s.
2. Chesterton, G. K. 1986. Orthodoxy. The Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton. Vol. I. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 251