Monday, February 6, 2017

Evangelism’s First Two Thousand Years

A Philosophy of Personal Evangelism 3

I love history. It has long been my favorite subject of study. I have read thousands of history books, including many on church history. I am reading two right now on the Roman Empire. I love history for many reasons but primarily because a better knowledge of the past almost always directs us toward better choices in the present. To that end I am going to briefly sketch for you the progress and regress of evangelism in the past two thousand years of church history. It isn't fair to attempt such a thing in a blog post or two. I apologize for the brevity but such is the limitation of this medium.

Ephesian amphitheater 
We see, first, the extent of evangelism in the Early Church through the prism of one church, Ephesus.

Acts 19. 1 And it came to pass, that, while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul having passed through the upper coasts came to Ephesus: and finding certain disciples… Paul brought them into New Testament Christianity, split the synagogue over Jesus, and launched a brand new church.

7 And all the men were about twelve.
8 ¶ And he went into the synagogue, and spake boldly for the space of three months, disputing and persuading the things concerning the kingdom of God.
9 But when divers were hardened, and believed not, but spake evil of that way before the multitude, he departed from them, and separated the disciples, disputing daily in the school of one Tyrannus.
10 And this continued by the space of two years; so that all they which dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks.

Now, it certainly helped Paul get attention for the Gospel that he had the capacity to do miracles, and a rather sensational conflict with a demon, but nonetheless, the Ephesian church grew rapidly.

17 And this was known to all the Jews and Greeks also dwelling at Ephesus; and fear fell on them all, and the name of the Lord Jesus was magnified.

20 So mightily grew the word of God and prevailed.

23 And the same time there arose no small stir about that way.
24 For a certain man named Demetrius, a silversmith, which made silver shrines for Diana, brought no small gain unto the craftsmen;
25 Whom he called together with the workmen of like occupation, and said, Sirs, ye know that by this craft we have our wealth.
26 Moreover ye see and hear, that not alone at Ephesus, but almost throughout all Asia, this Paul hath persuaded and turned away much people, saying that they be no gods, which are made with hands:

The term "Asia" in the KJV does not refer to the entire continent as we use it today but rather to a specific region around Ephesus so named by the Roman Senate. We see then that this early church at Ephesus had clearly evangelized their entire city, and had then taken the Gospel into the wider province around them. And they did this in only two and a half years.

At the risk of being melodramatic, next we sadly see the death of evangelism.

A Roman mosaic of a Christian
held by a gladiator being destroyed
by a wild beast
Initially, the devil's response to the Early Church was persecution.

I Thessalonians 2. 14 For ye, brethren, became followers of the churches of God which in Judaea are in Christ Jesus: for ye also have suffered like things of your own countrymen, even as they have of the Jews:
15 Who both killed the Lord Jesus, and their own prophets, and have persecuted us; and they please not God, and are contrary to all men:
16 Forbidding us to speak to the Gentiles that they might be saved, to fill up their sins alway: for the wrath is come upon them to the uttermost.

But persecution could not stop the church; indeed, persecution actually produced more growth.

Acts 8. 3 As for Saul, he made havock of the church, entering into every house, and haling men and women committed them to prison.
4 ¶ Therefore they that were scattered abroad went every where preaching the word.

How then did the devil manage to slow the explosive growth of the Early Church? First, he stirred up a veritable plethora of doctrinal controversies and heresies on the second century of our era to sidetrack it. The response to this was codified statements of doctrinal orthodoxy via Empire wide church councils. But at the same time ecclesiastical authority became centered more and more on the Roman see. Constantine, in an if-you-can't-beat-'em-join-'em moment, married the declining Western Empire to the Church, and thus co-opted the growing movement and birthed the Roman Catholic Church.

The resulting conglomeration of authority and doctrinal error would rule most of the Christian world and much of the secular as well for the next thousand years. The Roman Catholic Church calls this the Golden Age; history calls it the Dark Ages, with its almost complete collapse of inter-community commerce and communication. Isolated churches and regions burned bright with the genuine gospel of Christ but by and large that isolation prevented wider evangelization. For the most part, in this era, though men still came to Christ, they did so more often because of what they read than whom they heard.

The Protestant Reformation – begun via a Martin Luther converted by reading Scripture – did much to wrest the Europe from the grip of the Roman Catholic Church. The Reformation was marked by a return to an emphasis on preaching and sound doctrine, but it largely ignored evangelism. For example, John Calvin, one of the most influential authors in the history of Christianity, birthed a detailed system that is today called Calvinism or Reformed Theology. It posits an orthodox view of justification by grace through faith but it boxes it into a harshly closed looped that practically kills most motivation for witnessing.

God in His grace broke through this doctrinal and practical logjam with the life of William Carey and the birth of modern missions. Carey was an English cobbler with a love of geography and an aptitude for languages. He constructed a map of the world, and hung it over his cobbler's bench so he could pray while he worked. This led – and, remember, prayer feeds evangelism – to a desire to go to that lost world with the gospel. He took the increasing burden of his heart for the lost to his Calvinistic denomination and was told, "Young man, sit down. When God pleases to convert the heathen world, He will do it without your help or mine." Boldly ignoring such stifling pontificating he formed the first missionary society and in 1793 he sailed for India. Soon the Moravians, Baptists, Presbyterians, and Methodists followed his example and the nineteenth century saw a virtual explosion of missionary driven world-wide evangelism.

Billy Graham
As this missionary minded Christianity advanced it was also marked by a rebirth of mass evangelism at home. John Wesley and George Whitefield in the eighteenth, Charles Finney then Dwight Moody in the nineteenth, and Billy Sunday then Billy Graham in the twentieth centuries brought millions into the Kingdom with enormous city-wide crusades.

This approach continues today though usually on a smaller scale. In fact, one could argue that the concept of event evangelism – using special days and promotions in the twentieth century such as Christmas dramas, Easter cantatas, and Big Days – is simply a local church expression of mass evangelism. In these the lost are gathered into crowds, the Gospel is preached, and men and women trust Christ.

This brief sketch shows us some of the swings in emphasis and application of evangelism through church history. I shall continue it next week and then chase it with some applied wisdom.


  1. You are a brave man , sir, for even attempting to cover such an enormous topic. Looking forward to more of it.

  2. Enjoying your series. Keep it up! May we continue to take the gospel to the world!