Stories of Evangelism in the Early Church

The early church was an evangelistic church. From the least to the greatest, early Christians were serious about the regular proclamation of the Gospel. In the words of Michael Green, the early church believed that evangelism was “the prerogative and duty of every church member.” [1] This included apostles, nobles, paupers, philosophers, soldiers, business leaders, and even a few fishermen.

At the same time, the nature of evangelism in the early church was both passionate and spontaneous. They did not have the freedom to gather publically in large groups or plan highly involved outreach initiatives. Instead, the work of Gospel proclamation was organically filtered into their everyday lives. The early Christians relied daily on the Spirit and preached the Gospel enthusiastically whenever afforded the opportunity. The evangelistic zeal of the early church is well-documented in the New Testament and other writings of the post-apostolic age. Just like the apostles, many of the early church fathers followed their impassioned call to preach the Gospel.

Below, I offer three very different stories of evangelistic encounters in the early Christian world. I do not wish to suggest that these instances characterize the “right” strategies or methods of evangelism. Instead, these accounts provide a few inspiring snapshots of evangelism in the earliest days of the church that exemplify their consistent witness to the Gospel. In reality, these stories only begin to capture the breadth of all the harrowing efforts in the early church to proclaim the faith in a hostile world.

Our first story, which highlights the early Christian priority for evangelism, comes to us from church father Ignatius of Antioch (c. 110) on his journey from Antioch in Syria to Rome. Ignatius was arrested for his confession of Christ and was being transported to the capitol to be tried and ultimately martyred. During his long journey, Ignatius penned several letters to churches in Rome and Asia Minor to encourage their faith. In the midst of his Epistle to the Ephesians, Ignatius turned to the topic of evangelism. He exhorted the church at Ephesus saying, “Pray continually for the rest of mankind as well, that they may find God, for there is in them hope for repentance. Therefore, allow them to be instructed by you, at least by your deeds.” [2] Ignatius’ words are rich with meaning and informed by a devotion to the proclamation of the Gospel. His burden for those outside the faith is evident in his exhortation to prayer and informs his charge to preach the Gospel in both word and deed.

Ignatius’ words find application in a related example from the life of the church father Polycarp (c. 155). Polycarp, a friend of Ignatius, was also martyred for his faith. In the popular account of his martyrdom, Polycarp’s arrest did not quite happen the way one would expect. When the soldiers arrived at his residence, he welcomed them inside and encouraged them to sit down for a meal. He only requested a few moments to pray while they ate.

Instead of petitioning the Lord quietly in a back room, Polycarp seized the opportunity to share his hope in Christ. He prayed aloud so that all in the house could hear his earnest conversation with God. Here is a brief description of the scene:

When they [the soldiers] consented [to sit for a meal], he [Polycarp] stood and prayed, so full of the grace of God that for two hours he was unable to stop speaking, those who heard him were amazed, and many regretted that they had come after such a godly man. [3]

In his last moments of freedom, Polycarp’s prayers brought his captors to a point of conviction and compassion. They still followed orders and arrested him, though on the way back to Rome, they were so moved that they tried to persuade him to recant his faith in order to spare his life. But their efforts were futile, and eventually Polycarp was tried, convicted and executed for his faith. Thus, in the exhortation of Ignatius and example of Polycarp, we find the early Christian passion for evangelism, even in the most extreme circumstances.

A second story of personal evangelism comes from the life of the early Christian apologist Justin Martyr (c. 155). Justin was a trained philosopher who dabbled in several different Greco-Roman schools of philosophy in his pursuit of truth. He found none of them ultimately satisfying. Dismayed and dejected, Justin went in search of a solitary place by the sea to gather his thoughts.

As Justin made his way down to the seaside, he expected to be alone. He was not a little surprised when he found himself beside an old man who was not shy about engaging him in a personal conversation about the nature of truth and the revelation of God in the Scriptures. Though their discussion was layered with apologetic dialogue, ultimately the old man persuaded Justin to read the Scriptures. When he finally conceded and read the words of the prophets and apostles, he was captured by the Gospel. He recounted the whole experience in his Dialogue with Trypho and described his conversion saying:

… my spirit was immediately set on fire, and affection for the prophets, and for those who are friends of Christ, took hold of me; while pondering on his [the old man’s] words, I discovered that his was the only sure and useful philosophy. [4]

Justin abandoned the pursuit of all other philosophies and devoted himself solely to the teaching of Christ. We are never told the identity of the old man, and perhaps that does not really matter. What is clear is that this was a simple encounter of personal evangelism that transformed the life of one of the greatest early Christian apologists.

Finally, a third story of evangelism in the early church brings us back to Polycarp and his disciple Irenaeus (c. 180). In the waning years of the second century, Irenaeus would become an important defender of the faith against the rising tide of Gnosticism. He served as bishop of a persecuted congregation on the fringes of the Roman Empire in Gaul (modern-day France). Irenaeus, however, was not trained in Gaul or even Italy, but in Smyrna in Asia Minor under the teaching of Polycarp. In one of his letters to a wayward presbyter named Florinus, Irenaeus described his early days in the faith and how he would sit and listen to Polycarp openly engage anyone in the public square with the Gospel. Irenaeus writes:

I can tell also the very place where the blessed Polycarp was accustomed to sit and discourse; and also his entrances, his walks, the complexion of his life and the form of his appearance and his conversations with people.…[5]

Irenaeus paints the picture of Polycarp as one regularly participating in personal conversations about the Gospel. Clearly, Polycarp’s example left an impression upon the young Irenaeus. Years later, while serving the church on the borders of the Roman Empire, he remembers vividly the example of Polycarp’s devotion to sharing his faith.

These stories are only a glimpse of the spontaneous and passionate nature of evangelism in the early church. Each of these examples reveals how Gospel proclamation was organically woven into their daily lives and conversations. Whatever the circumstances, they sought opportunities to engage anyone and everyone with the good news of salvation in Christ. While there are many differences between the ancient world and ours, their enthusiasm for personal evangelism should not be one of them.

[1] Michael Green, Evangelism in the Early Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 380.
[2] Ignatius, Letter to the Ephesians, 10, in The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, ed and rev Michael W. Holmes (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004)
[3] Martyrdom of Polycarp, 7, in The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, ed and rev Michael W. Holmes (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004)
[4] Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, 8.1.
[5] Irenaeus’s “Letter to Florinus” is preserved in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History (Hendrickson: Peabody, MA, 1998), 5.20.