Evangelism can be hard. Whether we feel like we were born for it or we struggle to even get our words out, sharing our faith can be tough.
Whatever our evangelistic context, the core truths that underpin our outreach remain the same. Christ’s Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20), to go and make disciples of all nations, is a charge for the whole church. Throughout history, God’s people have responded.
The Early Church, the first Christians scattered throughout the vast Roman Empire in the years following the Apostolic Age, faced a colossal task as they took up this charge. In an ancient world celebrating pluralism, hedonism and power, the gospel was offensive. It was a world much like our own: obsessed with the self and the trappings of this life, deeply in need of redemption. The crises and divisions of even the last few months remind us just how far our nation seems from God. The tide of culture is rushing against us, but hope is not lost. Let us briefly consider three lessons we can take from the witness of the first Christians, lessons that offer hope in our evangelism today.
Remember who we speak to
Religious belief was hard-wired into the Roman psyche. Gods of money, sex, food, drink, war and peace; the list was practically endless. Each household even had their own gods, the lares (a form of ancestor worship). In his book, Destroyer of Gods, Larry Hurtado concluded that ‘everyone was presumed to honour the gods, and your own gods were supplied as part of your birthright.’ To be Roman was to believe in the gods. So the gospel call to submit to the God of Scripture alone was a call to reject the culture and heritage of Rome itself.
The gospel message of forgiveness, grace and eternal life with the creator God was an outrageous teaching. Different families and tribes respected different gods. No one deity claimed divine authority or sovereignty. The gods were known (and celebrated) as morally deficient, self-interested beings. They weren’t creative, they didn’t claim lordship or offer salvation. They were simply bigger than mankind and thus in charge. Christians, however, taught an alien message to ancient ears. Yet it was life-changing. The ancient world was trapped by sin. Some forms of religious worship incorporated elements of hedonistic excess, sexual fantasy and depravity, but every act of Roman worship was a denial of God’s sovereignty, celebrating instead the idols of the human heart. There was a goddess of beauty because man idolises the appearance, a god of wealth because such riches were prized. Rome was far from God, and in desperate need of him.
Christians today offer an alien message to a sinful world. In 2010 one in five British adults claimed to attend church at least once a month. Current trends suggest that figure is only decreasing. Church attendance is no guarantee of salvation, but its decline is indicative of a country that is no longer a ‘Christian Nation’. Children are growing up in unchurched families, many live with little or no knowledge of God and his Word. The gospel is increasingly alien, and in a society where the gods of sex, money and false religion command our worship, it is increasingly offensive. Yet it remains life-changing. Only Christ can offer life, and life to the full! So we must stand firm in the truth of the gospel.
The Early Church did not abandon the truth to fit in, they boldly proclaimed their alien message. They spoke the truth in love to a world in desperate need. Like our brothers and sisters in the Early Church, we live in a culture where people readily deceive themselves with meaningless idols and false gods. We speak to a culture that understands its worth, identity and reality in corrupt and broken ways. We live surrounded by people whose greatest need is for a true Saviour.
Remember our message
In a world of many gods, the first Christians proclaimed one of many messages. To some, the Christian faith was just another foreign philosophy or an extremist subsect of Judaism. With so many gods to choose from, why bother with only one? Humanly speaking, the odds were against the church. With so many competing voices, how could a message that promised a life of suffering and hardship win out over the glamour and glory of Rome?
Yet when the Early Church boldly proclaimed their gospel message, lives were transformed because their message was radically different. The gospel isn’t an alternative philosophy or a substitute for an idol or false god that has disappointed us. At the heart of the gospel is a cosmic rescue-mission:
For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10).
Whether we acknowledge it or not, we are lost without God. Our lives are meaningless. We live and die without hope. Christ came to offer a lifeline to a hopeless world. He came to seek and to save the lost. Such words were true in Jerusalem long ago, in Rome, Corinth and Antioch hundreds of years later. And such words are gloriously true today. We offer a gospel that saves the lost. We tell a wonderfully better story. Whatever our evangelism looks like, never move beyond that message.
Remember our God
Sharing this message is nonetheless daunting. The vast majority of our friends, family and peers are unbelievers. The challenge is enormous! The Early Church faced a similar situation. In 100 AD, there were around 50,000 Christians in an empire of 70 million. More than this, the Roman world actively opposed the Christian faith. Local persecutions flared up with alarming frequency, and occasional empire-wide persecutions meant there was a constant (if erratic) level of opposition to these earliest Christian communities. Widespread heresy and corruption from within the faith itself only furthered the challenge. With such opposition within and without, what hope did the few first Christians have of ever truly sharing the good news with a lost empire?
Their hope and their strength was in their God. No matter how big the Roman world seemed, how powerful the Emperor may be, the first Christians believed in a God who is far bigger. Listen to this second century description of him.
For in glory He is incomprehensible, in greatness unfathomable, in height inconceivable, in power incomparable, in wisdom unrivalled, in goodness inimitable, in kindness unutterable (Theophilus, Ad Autolycus 1.3).
The confidence of the Early Church lay in their God. Wonderfully, he remains the same yesterday, today and forever (Heb. 13:8). We hope and trust in the same God that Theophilus found so compelling, the same God that kept the first Christians faithful through all sorts of opposition.
Evangelism can be hard, no matter how much we might enjoy the opportunity. But we go out with the gospel of a God who is so much greater than the tides of culture that flow around us. Our God is incomparable in might and power. So remember who we speak to, remember the message we have, and remember the God who goes before us.