We were on the streets of Lansdowne, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia. I didn’t want to be there doing what we were doing that day. I was more introverted at that time and I certainly did not want to bother people I didn’t know.
Maybe you’ve seen and episode of Seinfeld where Jerry gets interrupted by a call from a telemarketer. Jerry responds to him by saying, “I can’t talk right now. Why don’t you give me your home number and I’ll call you later?”
Telemarketer: “Uh, well, I’m sorry. We’re not allowed to do that.”
Jerry: “I guess you don’t want people calling you at home.”
Jerry: “Well, I guess now you know how I feel.”
I felt like the telemarketer. About 20 of us who were students at Abilene Christian University were spending our Spring Break helping a church in Lansdowne and learning what it is like to be a Christian in a big city. I would rather have been learning what it would be like to be a Christian at a beach, but nevertheless I was there because my friend Troy had asked me to come and help him with the group.
On this day our assignment was to go door-to-door in the neighborhoods and ask people if there was anything we could do to be of help to them. At least our opening question was not, “If you were to die today would you go to heaven?” Even so, we received the same general response from the people of Lansdowne. Let me tell you, their doors slam pretty loudly.
Give them credit. The church there was attempting a different approach to the standard “door-to-door witnessing” that had been common for years. Times have changed. There was a day people welcomed a visitor at their front door. Today? Let me ring your doorbell at dinner time or on a Saturday and you’ll probably ask me for my address so you can return the favor.
Door-to-door door-knocking may have started when someone read Paul’s words in Acts 20:20: “You know that I did not avoid proclaiming to you anything that was profitable or from teaching you publicly and from house to house.” Someone got the idea that if Paul went house to house, maybe we should too.
But they may have missed the context. Paul is talking to the elders of the church in Ephesus when he reminded them how he taught them—the elders. He taught them publicly and from house to house. Their houses. The elders’ houses. Elders who knew Paul was coming to their houses most likely because he invited himself.
These efforts stem from wanting to be obedient to Jesus’ words to his disciples. At the end of Matthew Jesus has met his gathered disciples on a mountain in Galilee. He says, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20).
This passage is known as the Great Commission. Many see it as the marching orders of the church. It seems to be reiterated by Jesus in Luke’s rendition found in Acts 1:8: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
As we read through the book of Acts we see exactly that happening: the disciples are witnesses eventually to the end of the earth. Paul is under house arrest in Rome before he is eventually beheaded. As Acts ends we read: “Paul stayed two whole years in his own rented house. And he welcomed all who visited him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance” (Acts 28:30-31).
Those of us who follow Jesus are faced with how to do today what they did then. We want to be obedient to the commands to “make disciples” and be “witnesses.” We just don’t always know how.
The word “witness” comes from the Greek word “martys.” We get our word “martyr” from it. It means someone who is a spectator of anything. If you watched the Houston Astros win the last game of the 2017 World Series, you were a witness. And you could tell someone else about what you saw.
The word is used in a legal sense. When someone knows something about a situation that is being tried, they can be called as a witness. It might be a bit nerve-wracking, but all a person is asked to do is to tell what he or she saw concerning the matter that is being tried.
In a strong sense, a person becomes a martyr when they undergo a violent death because of their strong faith in Christ. Of the twelve apostles, all died a violent death except John, who died peacefully in his old age in Ephesus around AD 98.
When a person witnesses for Christ, he or she is simply telling someone else what they have seen of Jesus.
Peter did just that. He practiced what he preached. In 1 Peter 3:15-16 Peter sends these words to Christians who are starting to undergo persecution or are already deep into it. He says, “but in your hearts regard Christ the Lord as holy, ready at any time to give a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you. Yet do this with gentleness and respect…”
Here the word “witness” is not used, but the idea is present. Peter says to be ready to give a “defense.” The word is apologia, from which we get the word “apologetics.” It means to give a “reasoned statement or argument.” In other words, when asked, we are to have a good explanation for the hope that is in us.
A mentor of mine named Stanley Shipp used to say, “Now, a person is probably not going to come up to you and say, ‘Can you give me a reason for the hope that is in you.’ That’s not how they are going to ask the question.” Instead, Stanley said they are going to watch our lives and see something different. And when they do, they will ask what that difference is. Then we give an apologetic. We witness.
That’s what the early church did. That they witnessed may not surprise you. How they witnessed might. We know the church grew. The book of Acts tells us that it did in five different places. But early church writings tell us too. In the second-century Diognetus wrote that Christians “day by day increase more and more.” At the start of the third century Tertullian, a theologian in North Africa, wrote—somewhat exaggerated—that the Christians were “a great multitude of men—almost the majority in every city.”
Scholars have estimated that by the time of Constantine in the fourth century the Christians numbered 5-6 million, or between 8-12% of the population. Rodney Stark then calculated for this kind of growth to happen, the church grew for the first three centuries at a rate of 40% per decade.
Historians may differ on numbers and percentages, but one thing we know: the church grew. Wouldn’t you like to see that kind of growth today? Here’s the surprise. The church’s growth was not organized. There was not mission program. There certainly was no door-to-door evangelism training. (Did I hear someone say, “Thank goodness!”?)
From the Christian writings—and there is much that remains—from the second and third centuries there is not one treatise on evangelism that can be found. And when a writer refereed to the Great Commission, it was to speak about the Trinity or baptism but was not used as a way to encourage missionary activity.
You might like to know that the early Christians did not use their worship services to attract new people. Think about that the next time you get a flyer in the mail or see an ad on Facebook and see how far we’ve drifted. They believed the worship service was designed to glorify God and build up the believers, “not to evangelize outsiders.”
How did they grow then? In a short statement: they walked their talk. Cyprian—bishop of Carthage in North Africa—wrote in 256: “we do not speak great things but we live them.” In the 150s Justin (who was martyred—there’s that word again—in 165) said that the “Christians are growing in numbers because their lives embody ‘the fair commands of Christ.’” … He believed that “the effectiveness of the Christians witness depends on the integrity of the believers’ lifestyles.”
There are many other writings from the ancient Church Fathers that can instruct us in how the church grew then. It can be summed up in the idea that they believed in “patience.” They valued the idea of not getting in a hurry and letting God shape them and do his work. Patience worked out in their lives in a variety of ways, one of which Justin said was that it is “important for Christians not to quarrel like other people, and it is essential that they live their ‘good works’ visibly in the sight of others.”
We live in a “instant” world. We want things to happen now. God does not work that way. He is patient. Peter, who denied Christ, knew about that patience: “The Lord does not delay his promise, as some understand delay, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish but all to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). Paul, who persecuted the Christians, knew of God’s patience: “Or do you despise the riches of his kindness, restraint, and patience, not recognizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?” (Romans 2:4).
That repentance, or changed life, is the witness of the early church. Origen, a theologian of the third century, “envisioned the world as a great theater filled with spectators, all of them watching to see how the Christians respond to persecution.”
We may not be undergoing the same persecution our faith ancestors did and that some are undergoing today, but we are being watched. Our lives are our witness. And according to Jesus our main witness is our love for each other: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). We don’t need a concert level worship time. We don’t need the newest building. We don’t need whatever the latest conference tells us we need.
We need love for each other. And we need a word for others. That’s what witnesses do. They share what they have seen. When someone asks about what they see in us, we share what we have seen in Jesus.
- We listen well to their questions. We’re slow to speak, quick to listen.
- We give answers, but we don’t have to know all the answers.
- We can be certain of our hope, but we don’t have to be arrogant. I recently heard a preacher who was certain that the days of creation were 24-hour days and anyone who disagreed is a heretic. (The Hebrew word can mean “a twenty-four hour period”, “a half-day”, and “a season of time.” The post-Christian world we live in will not be attracted to that certainty that comes off as arrogance. (Especially when they can sense, sometimes better than we, that the length of “day” is not the main point of the Creation story anyway.)
- And we can be patient like our ancestors were. We don’t have to “close the deal” in one conversation, or one week, or one month, or even one year. If God can give us time and give us space, we can do the same for others.
You can knock doors if you want. But you may do better to hear the knock at your door. If you open it, Jesus will come in, sit down with you, and eat with you. You will go deeper in your devotion to God and your love of other believers. When you do that with patience, people will ask questions.
They may even give you their number so you can call them.
 Kreider, The Patient Ferment of the Early Church, 7.
 Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity, 6.
 Kreider, 11.
 Ibid., 13.
 Ibid., 15.
 Ibid. 16.
 Ibid., 19.