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Weekly Blog - 30 March 2024 - Local Church Evangelism

 

Local church evangelism

This week Arise’s weekly action looks at Easter and how we can take action to share faith with our friends and family.  In an accompanying blog we look at the role ordinary Christians and local churches have played in the Bible and throughout history to spread the good news about Jesus. 

 

Local church evangelism in the Bible

In the early Christian community, it was clear that once a new local church was planted in an area by a missionary community, responsibility for evangelising that local area transferred from the founder missionary community to the members of the local church.  We see this in the way the original local church in Jerusalem engaged in evangelism, “Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts.  They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people.  And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2: 46 – 47).  We also see this in the actions of the many other local churches that were planted later in the New Testament.  Thus, the apostle Paul could write to the church that had been planted by a missionary community in Colosse, “the Gospel is bearing fruit and growing throughout the whole world – just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and truly understood God’s grace” (Col 1: 6).  Throughout the life of the early church there was a relentless focus on evangelism.  We are told how “Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah” (Acts 5: 42).  Every Christian took part in sharing the gospel as a fundamental part of the role we all have to play to advance the holistic kingdom of God, even those who didn’t have a specific calling to spend the majority of their time as evangelists.  Thus Peter urges all of us to “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Pet 3: 15).

The early Christians ensured that all their outreach was covered in prayer.  They first prayed to God to provide the courage and the words to share their faith; “Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness” (Acts 4: 29).  Then they prayed for those with whom they were sharing their faith, as Paul says in his letter to the Romans, “Brothers and sisters, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved” (Roms 10: 1).  They would spend lots of time with non-Christians and take every opportunity to be sociable and in conversation with those around them.  They didn’t wait for people to come into ‘church’ to hear the gospel, but went out to take the message to others at the local village well, in the temple in Jerusalem, from house to house, on the roadside, in the synagogues, by rivers where people washed their clothes, in the market place, before councils and courts, in lecture halls, wherever people were.

Often, they opened the way to conversations about faith by demonstrating Jesus’ love through their actions.  They modelled a radical, open, loving and unified community that met the needs of its members, and the wider local community.  For example, we read that in Jerusalem, “there were no needy persons among them.  For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need” (Acts 4: 34 – 35).  Later the early church father, Tertullian (160 – 220 AD), reported that non-believers would remark “See how they love one another!”,[1] whilst the Emperor Julian (331 – 361 AD), who brutally opposed Christianity, complained that “These impious Galileans (Christians) not only feed their own poor, but ours also”.[2]  The practical love demonstrated by the early churches appears to have been a major factor contributing to the rapid growth of faith in the Roman world.  In other instances, miracles of healing, and other signs and wonders that demonstrated Jesus’ power, provided opportunities for ‘faith conversations’.  In just one example we hear how in Iconium “Paul and Barnabas spent considerable time there, speaking boldly for the Lord, who confirmed the message of his grace by enabling them to perform signs and wonders” (Acts 14: 3).  This was a central element of early church evangelism that Christians today should re-embrace. 

As well as opening up opportunities to share their faith through demonstrating practical love and miracles, it is clear that the early Christians took every opportunity to bring their faith naturally into their everyday conversations.  No doubt, as today, most of the people they talked to weren’t interested and moved the conversation on to something else.  However, some were ready and did respond with interest, allowing the early Christians to go deeper, turning these ‘faith conversations’ into ‘gospel conversations’.  (For talking about faith in general terms is great, but ultimately people need to hear about Jesus’ death and resurrection if they are to come into the wonders of a personal relationship with God.)  The New Testament presents many great examples of this.  We see Philip coming alongside an Ethiopian official and opening a conversation in which he shares his faith by asking “Do you understand what you are reading?” (Acts 8: 30).  Similarly, Barnabas and Paul in Psidian Antioch start a conversation in which they can talk about Jesus by going to the synagogue and coming alongside the local Jews.  As a result, the invitation was given, “Brothers, if you have a word of exhortation for the people, please speak” (Acts 13: 15).  Finally, even Jesus created such an opportunity when he simply came alongside a Samaritan woman at a well and asked her “Will you give me a drink?” (John 4: 7). 

When the early Christians had these conversations, they did not seek to argue others into faith.  They sought merely to witness to what they had seen and heard, and introduce people to Jesus to allow them to make a choice whether to follow him or not.  They accepted that on any given day many of those who heard would not respond.  As Jesus showed in the parable of the sower, much of the seed falls “along the path”“on rocky places” and “among thorns” but some on “good soil” (Matt 13: 3 – 23).  Therefore, rather than keeping on coming back to the same small group of listeners, they simply moved on and kept broadcasting the message as far and wide as possible, so that those who were ready could respond.  The early Christians were interested in making disciples of Jesus, not simply winning converts.   Those who were interested were not simply preached to, converted and forgotten, but invited into the life of their local church community.  In just one example, Peter preaches to the crowd in Jerusalem, and we hear how “Those who accepted his message were baptised, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.  They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2: 41 – 42).  The early Christians therefore walked with, taught, discipled and instructed those who came to faith within the context of their loving local church community (Arise Manifesto, pg 24 – 28).

 

Local church evangelism throughout history

In the almost two thousand years since the early church, all the lessons from history continually reaffirm the effectiveness of this New Testament model of local church evangelism through the simple sharing of faith by ordinary Christians with local friends, family and neighbours.  Writing in an Introduction to the History of Christianity, W Ward Gasque show this same approach being used to enormous effect during the following centuries of the Roman Empire, one of the most successful periods of mass evangelism in history, “Early Christianity in no way depended solely upon professional leaders for its practice and growth.  Each Christian was both ‘priest’ and ‘missionary’ … All were active in sharing the message of Christ with others.”  The point is further reinforced by Michael A Smith in the same publication, “Personal witness was by far the most common method of evangelism used by Christians, because it was the easiest to organise.  Personal friendship formed the basis for bringing many people to Christ … Celsus mentions how Christians with little or no education seized every opportunity to witness to people, and even when confronted by educated pagans would not stop pushing their opinions.” [3] 

Later, William Carey, the famous ‘father of modern missions’, saw this, as Bruce L Shelley describes in Church History in Plain Language“He held that the foreign missionary can never make more than a small contribution to the accomplishment of the work that has to be done, and that therefore the development of the local ministry is the first and greatest of all missionary considerations.” [4] Similarly, speaking about church growth in Asia, Operation World says “The recent growth of the Church has largely been through the work of national workers, local evangelists and ordinary believers.  These churches are, more than ever, Asian in structure, style and leadership – taking forms relevant for those they are trying to reach”, and again specifically in reference to South Asia, but which could be applied to any continent, “The vast majority of Kingdom increase in this region is through the faithful witness of indigenous believers sharing the good news village by village and town by town.” [5]  

In the UK today, the evangelist, J John, quotes survey results indicating why people who are not yet Christians come to church.  These show “1% come because they were visited by Christians, 2% come because of the church programme – they’ve come along to a holiday club, a senior citizens’ lunch, toddler group and so on, 3% come because of bereavement, 3% come because of Sunday school, 6% walk through the door because they see some publicity, 8% come because of some personal contact they’ve had with the minister or church staff, and 77% come because friends or relatives invited them.” [6]  As David B Barrett and Todd M Johnson put it in World Christian Trends“It is important to realise that evangelising Christians, the evangelising Church, consists almost entirely of lay persons – non-ordained, non-professional Christians, engaged full-time in secular occupations in the secular world.  In the vast majority of Christian denominations across the world, the laity number from 99.0% to 99.9% of the entire membership of the church … In 1954 the WCC’s (World Council of Churches) first survey Evangelism stated, ‘Laymen are on the frontier, served by the ministry whose function is to equip the people of God for its mission.’  Nearly every lay believer meets in his daily work people who are outsiders or even (in many parts of the world) persons who are unevangelised or unreached by the Gospel.” [7] (Arise Manifesto, pg 38 – 45)

Therefore, the church must prioritise the training and equipping of ordinary Christians to successfully share their faith with confidence, in order to see a real step change in the successful sharing of the gospel.  This is why Arise has developed Equipped to Share, a free course of five sessions that can be run in any local church, to empower individual Christians to talk with confidence about their faith, as one of our three main campaigns.  At the end of the day, both the Bible and the lessons from history are clear, it is ordinary people like you and me, worshipping in ordinary local churches around the world, sharing our faith powerfully and effectively with our friends and neighbours that will have the greatest impact for the gospel. 

 

Find out more

Find out more about how God is at work in the world, and the role we all have to play in that work, in the Arise Manifesto.  This report is Arise’s big picture, researched, Biblical, holistic and practical vision for a better world.  It looks at what the Bible says, and what we can learn from the best data and the world’s leading experts on the five major areas of evangelism, discipleship, social justice, development and the environment.  It then draws these lessons together into a practical road map for the changes we need to see in our world, which the Arise movement campaigns to achieve.

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[1] Tertullian, Apologeticum, (197), 39: 7

[2] Julian, Letter to Arsacius, (c 362)

[3] Gasque, W. W., The Church Begins, & Smith, M. A., Spreading the Good News, in Dowley, T. (Ed.), Introduction to the History of Christianity, (Oxford: Lion Books, 2014), pp. 44, 59 – 60 etc.

[4] Shelley, B., Church History in Plain Language, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2013), p. 391

[5] Mandryk, J., Operation World, (Colorado Springs: Biblica, 2010), pp. 19, 60, 66

[6] John, J., The Natural Evangelism Course, (Chorleywood: Philo Trust, 2014), p. 37

[7] Barrett, D. B. & Johnson, T. M., World Christian Trends, (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 2001), p. 667, see also pp. 665 – 674, 765

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