This article is so profoundly affecting me right now as I have been thinking about revival, open-air preaching, and the need for a resurgence of evangelists, that I asked Jim Elliff for permission to put it up here in full. I honestly think this article is one of the most important things I've ever read on evangelism. Let's discuss it in the comments. Feel free push-back where you disagree.
A Different Style of Evangelist: Laborers on the Loose
The disparity between what Christ and Paul did in evangelism and what we do, at least in the West, is dramatic. There is a certain sadness in me as I think about this, not just because it is so, but because I am now far along in years and I have not done enough to explore and experiment with apostolic methods for today. Therefore I will have to attempt to pass on what I am learning in hopes that whatever aspects of this cannot be substantiated through long periods of personal trial and error, may be tried out by others over a longer time.
Let me explain a few of those differences:
1. The first radical departure from Jesus and Paul is our concept of time-specific, meeting-oriented evangelism. You will read in vain in the New Testament to find so many days of evangelistic preaching scheduled for Jesus or Paul and conducted at 7 p.m. in a certain location, etc. You do not find one-day events for evangelism on such-and-such a date. We are, to be sure, more time-conscious than the first century culture of Israel or Asia Minor. But it remains a fact that Jesus and Paul never went to an advertised meeting for evangelism. This is not a moral issue; I'm only showing the significant differences.
The School of Tyrannus experience in Ephesus might seem to speak otherwise. Paul reasoned in that school on a regular basis for two years, perhaps in the afternoon during the time the people of the school rested. But note the words more closely:
But when some were becoming hardened and disobedient, speaking evil of the Way before the multitude, he withdrew from them and took away the disciples, reasoning daily in the school of Tyrannus. And this took place for two years, so that all who lived in Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks (Acts 19:9-10, emphasis added).
This was a meeting of disciples, not an evangelistic gathering. I do not doubt that evangelism took place in some ways, but only believers are mentioned as being in attendance. They, in turn, must have had a huge impact on the larger public. So, the apostles were willing to trainbelievers at regular times, but this is not the same as scheduled evangelistic meetings.
2. Jesus and Paul never "took invitations" to evangelistic meetings. They never filled their calendars with events planned out in advance. Their schedules were entirely flexible and never were "filled." They might wish to go to a certain place, and be restrained, or even determine notto go as originally hoped. If a certain place took more effort than was expected, they stayed on until the job was done before leaving for another location. They were busy, but not because of a schedule. The use of their time was not only flexible, it was entirely determined by them (under the Spirit's guidance). They were never subject to the calendars of others who wanted them to come over and speak to people in their area.
The first evangelists could have done otherwise. The scheduling of events was certainly a part of first century life. The Roman circus and games, for example, were planned as calendar events. But the earliest and greatest evangelists did not plan their evangelism in advance in the way we do. I don't mean that they never said to themselves, "I will go to a certain city tomorrow." But there is no reason to believe they bound themselves to meeting dates or filled up their date books with scheduled appearances.
3. Jesus and Paul avoided all that could be associated with "production" in their evangelism. There was no stage to their work. It took place in the common world of streets, shops, schools, and porches. It took place on roads. If Paul were traveling from one town to another taking four days walking, if asked, he would likely have described his activity during this period as "preaching the gospel." They evangelized on the go, not by the event.
4. First century evangelism never involved strategizing about how to gather a crowd. There were crowds that gathered on occasion, but they were not the result of careful planning. Rather, they "happened." On certain occasions they came about through apostolic miracles, in other cases through persecution, and on others simply through the magnetism of the men themselves. I know that God planned those crowds from eternity past, but I'm speaking of planning in the temporal level. It never seemed to occur to Paul that a crowd was necessary for evangelism to be effective. Philip is said to have preached Jesus to one man. Paul went for long periods without a large group ever forming around him. He might have spoken to five people here, two there, and twenty in another place. But he never gathered the other evangelists around him and asked, "What can we do to get up a crowd for the gospel?"
5. Paul and Jesus never used entertainment to attract people. This is true despite the fact that there was plenty of it around. There were balladeers, circus clowns, sports heroes, chariot drivers, gladiators, poets, actors, musicians, and even stilt-walkers. But there is no record of the first evangelists ever attempting to attract people in this way.
This is a clear case in which one departure from biblical precedent leads naturally to another. Think back to number four—strategizing about how to attract a crowd. If you are to draw large numbers of spiritually dead people to listen to the gospel you have to do something to entertain them. In their natural condition of depravity, they run from the gospel (John 3:19-21). And when unregenerate people come to such events, the entertainment itself often plays a role in a deadly form of deception. The emotional responses that are often prompted by touching performances of drama or music are often mistaken for spiritual responses to the preaching of the gospel. The sad results, in many cases, are emotionally-prompted and seemingly sincere, yet false professions of faith, made by people who leave the event more deceived than they were before attending. There are exceptions, of course, but close scrutiny will reveal that not so much is happening as it might seem.
6. The first evangelists did not use the meetings of the local church as the primary place for evangelism. They did evangelize in synagogues among non-believing Jews and Gentile proselytes. This was a clearly identifiable aspect of their strategy. But in the meetings of Christians they did not primarily seek to evangelize. Of course, I'm speaking of Paul and the other apostles here; a New Testament church was not formed during Jesus' time. The church, in other words, was about believers. When they gathered they were to edify each other, receive edification, and worship. A non-believer might come in to their meeting who would feel convicted (1 Cor. 14:23-25), but evangelism was not the primary reason for the meeting.
I'm not saying that the gospel was not preached in local church gatherings, or that people could not be converted in such a setting. Romans, Ephesians, Galatians, etc. are the gospel in comprehensive form, and such truths were expounded and discussed. But there was nothing like the focus we find in many evangelical churches who believe that the Sunday gathering is principally about winning lost people and gaining new members.
There is a difference here that should be obvious, along with another form of danger when this distinction is lost. In such a result-oriented meeting, pastors will have a hard time doing what is important for the spiritual health and growth of the believers who have been entrusted to them (i.e. praying for long periods, talking straightforwardly to the church about disobedience and even discipline, going into depth in teaching the Bible, etc.). Because unbelievers in attendance might be offended or disinterested in such aspects of church life, the necessities are all-too-often neglected in favor of activities that are geared toward church growth.
7. First century evangelists were not dependent upon or driven by money. It is true that a laborer is worthy of his hire, but Jesus did not mean by this that the laborer would always have enough money even to eat. Paul often went without food. Jesus did mean that it should be theresponsibility of the believers to support such a work among them. However, the ministry of the laborer was not determined by this. Nothing apparently was guaranteed in advance for his support. In fact, the only thing that appears to be mentioned in the context of "hire" is that food and lodging be provided (see Matt. 10:9-11)—far less than what we mean by that statement. In fact, in his sending out of the 70, Jesus forbade the collecting of funds in preparation for their ministry:
Do not acquire gold, or silver, or copper for your money belts, or a bag for your journey, or even two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for the worker is worthy of his support (Matt. 10:9-10).
And stay in that house, eating and drinking what they give you; for the laborer is worthy of his wages. (Luke 10:7).
In our day many otherwise fine men would never consider paying for the privilege of preaching the gospel (as opposed to being paid). The laborer of the NT, however, paid dearly for that joy. There were false apostles that violated that principle, but such were severely rebuked in Paul's letters. The true New Testament laborer was sacrificial.
What Does Such a Laborer Look and Act Like?
Laborers are needed for the harvest. We should pray for them and we may well be among them (Matt. 9:37-38). What would such a person be like who is sent out into the harvest? And what would his job entail?
Before answering this, I might add that not all faithful people are to be "laborers" in this sense. Some are called as pastors of churches, paid or unpaid, vocational or bi-vocational. Others are active and evangelistic church members. But there is such a thing as an evangelistic laborer, and this is who I'm describing. These were the evangelists and church planters of their day. This included the original apostles and all others who were apostolic in their mission. By this I do not mean to imply there are more apostles of Christ than the original twelve (including Paul, Rom. 1:1). But there are those who labor like them, evangelizing and starting churches. If there were no apostolic types today, we would have no missionaries. The word "missionary" does not appear in the Bible, yet it is the Latin way of saying the Greek word, "apostolos," meaning "sent one." In some ways it is inconsistent to speak of missionaries and not believe in ongoing apostolic work. The fact that there were false apostles, presupposes that there were others who were doing such apostolic work, regardless of what we prefer to call them.
Jesus said that we should pray that the Lord of the harvest would thrust such men into the harvest because the harvest is great (Matt. 9:37-38).
Some, if not most of these people should be unmarried. Paul and Timothy and Titus and even Jesus fit into this category. Perhaps others of the original apostles were not married, but it is hard to discern this. They certainly were free to be gone from their families for extensive periods if they were married. Peter was said to take along a believing wife (1 Cor. 9:5). Perhaps they traveled together without children. But the reasons why many who are called to this life are unmarried should be obvious.
It also might be gathered from the New Testament that such a calling may have different phases. For instance, John and Peter appear to have settled down in a region after their initial work. James stayed in Jerusalem, where he labored alongside the elders of a mammoth church. Paul, on the other hand, remained a traveling man with an ever-broadening sphere of influence.
They must be willing to live off of little. There can be no greed in such people. This is not to say that the people who know and love them should not be supportive to the best of their ability. But nothing can be counted on by the laborer except that God will take care of him. He should not go only after he has raised support. He should just go, trusting God while remaining in vital relationship with the church(es). Rather than calculating funds and expenses, he should learn to exercise faith. In our day, this may mean that the local church will receive some of the support that comes in for him as a useful channel for reporting income tax matters. However, all will not be received in this way. A set salary from a church should not be required by the laborer. On the part of the church most closely associated with him, they should be willing to participate in support as much as possible. But waiting until the finances of the church are sufficient should not be an issue. I do have experience in this—twenty years of it. God can be trusted. We have already lost too much time waiting to raise money.
It appears that neither Paul nor Jesus, nor the apostles, had a permanent dwelling in their traveling stage. We don't know everything about this. God did not choose to tell us, mainly because it is not the important thing. God is not against believers having homes. But because of this man's responsibilities, we do know that he cannot be hampered by the cares of home ownership. "No soldier in active service entangles himself in the affairs of everyday life, so that he may please the one who enlisted him as a soldier" (2 Tim. 2:4). He may have to rent a place to stay for a time, or stay in the homes of good, hospitable church members, but he needs to keep himself as free for his work as possible.
This person would have to be a "self-starter," not dependent upon someone else to get him up and going for the gospel. He cannot be lazy. And, of course, other qualities should be found in such a man who will be called into this service. He must, to say the least, be exemplary in his behavior, for his life will speak as loudly as his words.
With mobility as it is these days, a man may be able to stay in one place as a hub for a longer period of time. This might mean that he will work in various places throughout the area, seeking to lead people to Christ, to strengthen the believers, to congregationalize them or to add to the church that is there.
Obviously, the evangelistic laborer must have God-given abilities in evangelism and with organizing a group concerning the basics of church life.
A Possible Scenario
Here is only one scenario to show how this might come to pass:
There is a young man who comes to your church from a seminary. He shows signs of being an evangelistic laborer in the way we have described. The leaders encourage him with the possibilities. He moves into the home with an elder, or a faithful family and begins his work without any guaranteed pay. Perhaps this man is joined by another young man who was raised in the church. That second man, let's say, will live at his own home with his parents. Both of these men may rent an apartment later on. Or, if the church wishes, it might provide a house just for this kind of team.
On a daily basis they throw themselves into personal growth, prayer, evangelism and training of converts. Perhaps they spend time on the local college campus each day, seeking to build relationships, and to evangelize. College students who are eventually won to Christ receive training from these men. The laborers begin a church around the handful of students won to Christ. More are added until there is a viable work going on—a new church.
Simultaneously the young men are driving on some days to a nearby town where there is a need for a solid work. They hang out in the regular places, building relationships as before. Eventually a church is born there as well. This sort of thing might happen in various places, depending on the time of the workers and the blessing of God.
The men make no appeal for funds, but the church members are sensitive to their needs. The church invites them for meals, provides some unsolicited money, and does all that they can to supply the need because these men are extensions of them in many ways.
It is not wrong for these men to have a way to make some of their money, doing "tent-making" as necessary, provided it does not hinder their main work. For instance, they might consider having some kind of online sales that could be handled on their own time. Direct face-to-face sales are not recommended, since it has a way of distorting evangelism. Or, there might be a way for some of the men to work in the businesses of some of the members, as needed. Or, yet another way is for these men to have a skill that can be used by the church members and others. They can work in such a way that will not totally keep them from their task.
The men report on what God is doing. Perhaps later a third team member is added, and so on. It is certainly best to work in teams, for the sake of accountability. When possible, the men should seek to be related to godly men and/or the pastors of the local church—men who recognize their gifts, encourage them, teach them, and hold them accountable.
Later, two members of the team leave for another part of the country. In this area, there may be no church and they will not be able to worship with believers until they are able to start a work. It was out of such a pool of available laborers that Barnabas and Paul were commissioned for their travels, if you remember the Antioch church experience (Acts 13:1-3).
As you can see, only the most responsible of men can do this. Some men might seek to do this work precisely because they do not want to work a regular job. Therefore, much care should be given as to who is encouraged to do this. This is hard work for those who do it right. There can be no slackers, no whiners, no dependent types who must be told every move to make.
In the case of my own church which is made up of home congregations, these laborers might be instrumental in starting new congregations in a variety of areas. This could be one of the many ways that congregations (really small churches) could begin.
Now, of course, all of this seems foreign to us. If we lived in India or the Philippines, it might not seem so unusual, but we in the West cannot easily fathom such a method of evangelism and church expansion. Despite the radical differences between this idea and typical modern evangelism, please do not be too harsh or abrupt in your response. I am only exploring possibilities by setting out what seem to be obvious differences between the modern church and the New Testament model. And I am wondering if there might not be something wrong, or at least something that can be done better.
If you have comments, please don't hesitate to forward them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you wish to include this issue in your chat rooms discussions or blogs, please feel free to do so. But let me know, so I can gain from your insights.
Copyright © 2005 Jim Elliff | Christian Communicators Worldwide, Inc.
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