I have been reading a fascinating book on Church History called “The Triumph of Christianity” by Rodney Stark. He is well researched and gives tremendous insights into the history and culture of the church, and especially the 1st century and how Christianity spread. The following gives us insight into the book of Acts and can teach us to be more strategic in the 21st Century by working together to reach this culture.
I will cover two topics from chapters 3 and 4 in his book. The first topic is how the Apostle Paul ministered and the second is how conversion happens. If we keep these in mind and put them into practice we will see people come to Christ (1 Cor. 15:58).
How Paul ministered:
When we think of the Apostle Paul we think of a theological and evangelistic giant. We think of a man skilled in apologetics and evangelistic techniques and with a personality to win people by his personality to his beliefs. But in reality he was not a very good public speaker, in fact his verbal communication and charisma in person was quite ordinary (2 Cor. 10:10).
What Paul was gifted at was not so much argumentation, apologetics, and evangelism – rather he was bold and gifted at organization, modeling the Christian life, and the written word.
In the beginning of Paul & Barnabas’ mission work they would debate in synagogues, which was unsuccessful. Paul soon learned to make prior arrangements through people who knew people with commitments of support from where he was coming from before entering a new community (much like modern missionaries raising support and connecting with an organization already established in a particular country or city). Paul learned to take advantage of people’s social networks (family and friends of Christians) to reach people he would not otherwise have come into contact with.
Paul promoted what we would call friendship evangelism. He would instruct people to evangelize their friends and their family members through casual conversation in ordinary and everyday life. Then he would instruct the Christians to invite their friends and family members to an evangelistic event. To make these events successful Paul learned that numbers tend to inspire, so Paul traveled with as many as 40 followers (i.e., he would bring with him an instant congregation). Before entering a new town Paul would send a group of people ahead of him to try to gather together all the Christians in that town, along with relatives and friends in preparation for evangelistic worship services. Then Paul would come with his entourage of 30-40 people and meet up with his friends he sent ahead of him to meet with the crowd of skeptics and new believers for something like a “Tent Revival Meeting” or a “Billy Graham Crusade.” In the months to follow these events, Paul would focus on establishing and training potential church leaders to be the Church without Paul being present.
In his group of 30-40 disciples he would have had scribes; they would have taken notes when he preached or would help in making copies of his letters to distribute to churches for encouragement, edification, and training. One of the scribes revealed his name in Romans 16:22 – “I, Tertius, the writer of this letter, greet you in the Lord.”
Conversion – how it happens:
Rodney Stark points out sociologically that when someone converts, doctrine is usually of secondary importance – this is not to say doctrine doesn’t matter, rather that most people convert to a religion because of relationships. As Rodney Stark put it:
“people tend to convert to a religious group when their social ties to members outweigh their ties to outsiders who might oppose the conversion, and this often occurs before a convert knows much about what the group believes.”
Conversion begins through social networks or friendship evangelism; what causes people to remain in a religion or to grow as a person is good doctrine. In the first century church the majority of converts who came to Christ did so because a friend or family member had converted and shared with them the good news.
Gentile Conversion – at the beginning, the majority of Gentiles who converted were already God-fearers who were hanging out at the local Jewish Synagogues and already had knowledge of the Old Testament Scriptures. The reason they did not convert to Judaism was because it was too difficult; they would have had to renounce all Gentile ties that conflicted with the 613 Laws of the Old Testament and would have had to be circumcised (ouch!). When Christianity came along the God-fearers did not have to convert to Judaism and would have been allowed to still live in their Gentile culture and retain many of their friends; they were just forbidden from immorality and idolatry so that they now would be devoted to Christ rather than to a religion.
The other Gentiles who converted were pagans who were not devoted to a particular god or religion and who were empty on the inside and were seeking something more. When they would encounter a friend or family member devoted to Christ who was completely changed they would begin to investigate this new religion. When persecution broke out, the faith of Christians became stronger and many of their friends and family members had sympathy, which actually led to more conversions to Christ.
Jewish Conversion – many of the Jews living in a pagan world were separate from the pagan world because the Jewish Laws restricted their involvement in regular every day activities like eating with friends or business associates, etc. Many Jewish people were frustrated by this and when Christianity came along, which retained much of their Jewish heritage and which was the promised fulfillment of the Old Testament, many Jews converted because they saw it as a Jewish religion in which Jesus the Christ abrogated many of the Old Testament laws so that Gentiles and Jews could live as one under the Messiah as Lord. This was relatively easy to swallow for many non-legalistic Jews and many converted.
What can we learn from the above? Go out into the world, engage the world, share Christ with the world, and don’t compromise your morals but don’t fear the world at the same time.
Grace Church or any church will grow because of you.
Talk to your family members and friends, your social networks, your neighbors and co-workers; share Christ and then invite them to Church on Sunday where the preacher will present the gospel. Then invite your friends to get involved in a Home Community or AWANA or School of Theology class so that they can grow.