Evangelism in the Early Church

In Great Britain there a saying that something “does exactly what it says on the tin.” This describes a product that does exactly what it advertises. Michael Green’s book Evangelism in the Early Church does exactly what it says on the tin. The succinct title is very much indicative of its content.

Green takes a direct, linear, and comprehensive look at what it meant for the early church to do evangelism. Green does not cover the early church period chronologically. Instead, he addresses it topically. Each chapter covers a different topic, and these chapters are arranged in pairs or trios. Chapters one and two are opposite sides of the same coin, with chapter one being “Pathways for Evangelism” and chapter two being “Obstacles for Evangelism.” Green then defines the message of the gospel in chapter three. He returns to paired chapters with four being entitled “Evangelizing the Jews” and five being “Evangelizing the Gentiles.” There is another interlude as Green provides a fascinating look at conversion, which he indicates was essentially unheard of in the Greco-Roman world. The last four chapters of the book cover evangelists of the early church, addressing their motives, methods, and strategy.

Green puts forward his main argument early on in the book. “I argue that neither the strategy nor the tactics of the first Christians were particularly remarkable. What was remarkable was their conviction, their passion, and their determination to act as Christ’s embassy to a rebel world.”((23, emphasis mine.)) His linear and detailed approach to the study bring out these aspects without becoming bogged down in minute details. The book does not seem to be written for the average layperson, yet Green writes with an accessibility that would allow the average lay person to enjoy and learn from it.

While the book is largely descriptive, there is an element of prescriptiveness in it as well. Green highlights five approaches that the early church took towards evangelism that he believes the church is our day could effectively adopt. The five approaches:

  1. They did their evangelism on secular ground.
  2. They had personal conversations with individuals.
  3. Their homes provided a natural context for gossiping the gospel.
  4. Their leadership was international.
  5. They emphasized the work of the Holy Spirit.

Of these five approaches, the North American church seems best at number two. This approach has been the backbone of evangelical evangelism for a good fifty years. With our increasing propensity to be distracted by personal technology such as smart phones, this strength may be waning in our culture. There is also the tendency for many who are used to thinking of evangelism as merely “saving souls” to get caught up in trying to talk their not-yet-Christian friends into submission.

Some groups within the North American church are good at two of the other four approaches. There is a stream of the Church that is very good at the fifth early church approach to evangelism. Those of us who are not as comfortable with that approach would do well to be in conversation with those who are. Approach four is beginning to be recognized as valuable by mostly larger urban churches, but it seems to be gaining favor in other churches as well, as we seek to learn from Christians from outside our own culture.

The two approaches that the North American church struggles with are the first and the third. The idea of doing evangelism in secular places is still a struggle for us. The North American church tends to be concerned about the repercussions of doing evangelism outside the walls of our homes and churches. Green’s book does a fantastic job showing that the early church was so convinced of the power of the Gospel that they sought to do evangelism despite the consequences. If we are going to engage in evangelism in a secular setting, we need to keep our eyes and ears open for the subtle promptings of the Spirit. As hard as it is, I have found in my personal experience that my most spiritually fruitful conversations with not-yet-Christians have come in the secular work environment when an everyday conversation takes a “religious” turn, either through something that has come up in the news or in that person’s personal experience. This type of conversation has elements of the first, second and fifth approaches.

In remarking on the fourth approach, Dr. Green makes the point that the early church did not have dedicated church buildings in the first two centuries of the Church. How important were their homes! It seems that we often overlook the importance of hospitality in evangelism. We can be caught up in any number of concerns about our homes–but, what if we set those things aside and welcomed not-yet-Christians into our homes, showing hospitality to them, while waiting to see how the Holy Spirit might move in those interactions?

Evangelism in the Early Church is a book that I will keep on my bookshelf. It is a good antidote against falling into the trap of thinking only programmatic evangelism “works”. I can also imagine using it to form a study on the topic of evangelism that I could use in a Sunday school or vestry setting.


  • Zac Neubauer

    Zac is President of the U.S. chapter of the Evangelical Fellowship in the Anglican Communion, and currently serves as priest-in-charge at St. Clement's Episcopal Church in Rancho Cordova, California.