Excerpted from “Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City” (Zondervan)
Part 1: Lay Ministry Dynamics and Evangelism
Part 2: Pastoral Support, Safe Venues and Discussion Questions
Until now, we’ve spent most of our time trying to understand the missional conversation, discerning some of its commonalities and strengths as well as its errors and pitfalls. One recurring theme is the importance of equipping and involving the laity in ministry. Under Christendom, people simply came to the church to receive the ministrations of the professional clergy. We can no longer assume that people will come. This should not be taken to imply that the ordained ministry is obsolete—by no means! It is the responsibility of the ordained leadership to build up the church and its members through the ministry of the Word and sacraments. However, one critical focus of that ministry must now be the discipling of the laity for ministry in the world. This is one of the most practical ways a church can appropriate the insights of the missional conversation, moving toward a centered, balanced approach to ministry.
We find an example of this idea in an interview conducted with Eddie Gibbs and Ryan Bolger of Fuller Seminary. When asked, “What are the marks of churches (people) that live missionally?” Bolger provides a helpful and practical answer: “They no longer see the church service as the primary connecting point with those outside the community. Connecting with those outside happens within the culture, by insiders to that culture who express the gospel through how they live.”(1)
The rest of this chapter will propose different ways and means for equipping and encouraging the laity to engage in ministry “within the culture.” I give special emphasis to the lay ministry of the Word—the building up of believers and the evangelizing of nonbelievers through preaching and teaching—though in part 7, I will point to some other ways that Christians can do ministry in the world, including the practice of justice and the integration of faith and work.
There has always been a strong tendency, as John Stott says, for Christians to “withdraw into a kind of closed, evangelical, monastic community.”(2) This is not, of course, how things were in the early church. The Greek word euangelizo means “to gospelize,” to tell people the good news about what Jesus did for us, and in the book of Acts literally everyone in the early church does it. Not only the apostles (5:42) but every Christian (8:4) did evangelism—and they did so endlessly. Passages such as Romans 15:14; Colossians 3:16; 1 Thessalonians 1:6–10; Hebrews 3:13; and 1 John 2:20, 27 indicate that every Christian was expected to evangelize, follow up, nurture, and teach people the Word. This happened relationally—one person bringing the gospel to another within the context of a relationship.
In Michael Green’s seminal Evangelism in the Early Church, he conveys the conclusion of historians that early Christianity’s explosive growth “was in reality accomplished by means of informal missionaries.”(3) That is, Christian lay people—not trained preachers and evangelists—carried on the mission of the church not through formal preaching but informal conversation—“in homes and wine shops, on walks, and around market stalls … they did it naturally, enthusiastically.”(4)
Green quotes pagan writers such as Celsus, who complained with great sarcasm that “we see in private houses … the most illiterate and bucolic yokels, who would not dare to say anything at all in front of their elders and more intelligent masters. But they get hold of … any … who are as ignorant as themselves and say … ‘We know how men ought to live. If your children do as we say, you will be happy yourselves and make your home happy too.’” Green writes, “In fact, of course, it pays the highest compliment to the zeal and dedication of the most ordinary Christians in the subapostolic age. Having found treasure, they meant to share it with others, to the limits of their ability.”(6)
Green is careful to point out that not all evangelism in the early church was informal. In his chapter titled “Evangelistic Methods,” he speaks of many forms of evangelism that required great training and expertise, including synagogue preaching and open-air preaching, as well as public teaching and “dialogical” evangelism. Early Christian teachers set up academies (schools for instruction in the faith) but also taught science, mathematics, philosophy, and the humanities from a Christian perspective. The great Catechetical School of Alexandria was one, and we know that Justin Martyr started one such school in Rome. Green shows that many non-Christians came to take classes, listen to lectures, and dialogue with teachers. The original example of this form of evangelism may have been the apostle Paul’s lecturing in the public hall of Tyrannus in Ephesus. There he engaged in dialegomenos—interactive dialogue with all comers—about the Christian faith daily for two years (Acts 19:9–10). Green writes, “The intellectual content of his addresses must have been very stimulating. Here was a man who could hold his own, and presumably make converts, in the course of public debate.”(7)
But Green returns to the most important way that Christianity spread—through the extended household (oikos) evangelism done informally by Christians. A person’s strongest relationships were within the household—with blood relatives, servants, clients, and friends—so when a person became a Christian, it was in the household that he or she would get the most serious hearing.(8)
If the head of the household (Greek, oikos) became a believer, the entire home became a ministry center in which the gospel was taught to all the household’s members and neighbors. We see this in Acts 16:15, 32-34 (Lydia’s and the jailer’s homes in Philippi); Acts 17:5 (Jason’s home in Thessalonica); Acts 18:7 (Titius Justus’s home in Corinth); Acts 21:8 (Philip’s home in Caesarea); and 1 Corinthians 1:16; 16:15 (Stephanas’s home in Corinth).
The home could be used for systematic teaching and instruction (Acts 5:42), planned presentations of the gospel to friends and neighbors (Acts 10:22), prayer meetings (Acts 12:12), impromptu evangelistic gatherings (Acts 16:32), follow-up sessions with the inquirers (Acts 18:26), evenings devoted to instruction and prayer (Acts 20:7), and fellowship (Acts 21:7).
If another member of the household became a Christian—the wife, children, or slaves and laborers—then the gospel would spread more indirectly. In his chapter titled “Evangelistic Methods,” Green sketches out the different ways the gospel moved through households, depending on who was the first convert.
We also know from the Bible and early historical records that simple friendship was one of the main carriers of the gospel. We see this in John 1 when Philip passes his knowledge of Jesus on to his friend Nathanael. Green relates how Pantaenus led Clement of Alexandria to Christ, Justin led Tatian, and Octavius led Minucius Felix to Christ—all through friendship, which was taken very seriously by the ancients.(9)