A Brief History of Christian Evangelism V
The First One Hundred Year of Christianity
Christianity in the first century was the most beautiful icon of Christianity. During this period we have seen the characteristics of the church of Christ in its fullness. It lived as the Lord planed for it with no deviation from its objectives as a communion and as individuals. This period is the gloriest- one in the entire church history, and this is why I delayed talking about it until the end of this series. It is sad to report that starting from the Fourth century the church began to loose its pure characteristics as a result of many factors that I am going to refer to in this article.
The Greatest Evangelist:
The first century of Christianity started with the birth of our beloved Lord Jesus Christ, His evangelism, and then His death, resurrection, and ascension to heaven. In this article, let us talk about the evangelism of our Lord Jesus Christ, which eventually would need many volumes to cover it, however, for our purpose here, I am going to talk briefly about:
The characteristics of His evangelism:
1- Since the purpose of His first mission was His ‘His own’ (John 1: 11), i.e., the Jewish people in their land of Israel, He incarnated and lived in Israel since childhood till He appeared to Israel (John 1:31). Here is a good lesson for evangelists. They need to comprehend not only the language of the region they are going to evangelize but also the culture. Here, He set the best example and the norms for the best evangelism practice.
2- He worked as a carpenter and lived among the poor people of the country, so He can see, touch, and feel the life reality of the majority of the population. He did not live in an ivory tower, but was raised and lived as a poor person. This is a clear invitation for evangelists to be armed not only with the Gospel, but also with deep understanding of people’s circumstances, and their needs. Also, to share their feelings, and their lives if possible.
3- His evangelism was saturated with parables, examples, words, and vivid images of the culture that every one of His audiences could identify with them easily. Nothing in His teaching was foreign for His audience. His words were understood by the poorest and the uneducated as well as the richest and the well learned. He gave a great example of not forgetting the poor and uneducated, a repeated mistake of many evangelists in every age. The power of His message was not in using eloquent language or philosophy, but rather it was in the power of the Spirit that initiated and accompanied the teaching.
4- When He selected His disciples and apostles, He chose them from the same culture, and not from a foreign culture, another indication of the importance of appointing persons who live in and understand the culture and consequently can identify with the people of that culture.
5- His work was seed planting. For over three years, the Lord did not invite people to attend a specific church, neither He built a church. He planted seeds of salvation in the hearts of the people. His apostles, after His ascension, established the churches. Many evangelists troubled when they do not see direct and quick results of their own efforts, while the Lord may be using them only for seed planting.
6- Power of prayers and fasting: The Lord gave Himself as an example of an evangelist. He spent the nights in prayers and the days in preaching and meeting people. This is the source of power for evangelism. He started His service by fasting for forty days and forty nights. The lesson here is to depend on God’s power and not on our own wisdom, and reach that through the power of prayers and fasting.
7- His evangelism was very focused on the important aspects of evangelism:
a- Christianity is based on the “Faith,” as a fundamental requirement (review the Sermon on the Mountain). In Orthodoxy today many are afraid to talk about faith, because some Orthodox consider ‘faith’ as Protestantism’s tenant. Faith is a very initial requirement of evangelism. We can’t succeed in evangelism until we can talk and ask about ‘faith’ freely.
b- Invitation to ‘Repentance.’ Repentance is the beginning of a spiritual life and it continues to strengthen the spirituality. We can’t just become teachers, but we have to continue to call people to repentance. They called the Lord ‘teacher,’ but He did not stop to call them to repentance.
c- Eschatological aspect: ‘From that time (His baptism) Jesus began to preach and to say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 4:17). The Gospel is full of His teaching about heaven, the kingdom of God, the last day, and the judgment, using words, vivid parables, and prophecies. I don’t exaggerate if I say that the eschatological aspect of His teaching was the main core of His work.
d- Showed great love, care, intimacy, respect, interest in individuals and dealt with them with mercy and humbleness. This is a clear invitation for all Christian servants to follow His lead in how to respect, love, care of individuals. When we serve the multitudes we tend to be less appreciative of individuals’ needs, which is a grave sin in evangelism.
e- Refusal of materialistic richness, acceptance of honor from others, and of practice authority over others. ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you: but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave. Just as the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” (Matt 20:25-28). No one will forget when the Master washed His disciples’ feet. [In the history we have seen the weakness crept into the church when the church or its servants seek materialistic richness or exercise authority over others].
f- Deep understanding of religion and its applications: Any reader of the Gospel will easily recognize the continuous courageous attempts of the Lord to go beyond the rites and the laws to show that they were all created for man and not to be a burden on man. If you recall the importance of sacrifices in the Old Testament, you know what kind of a challenge He had when He declared ‘I need a mercy and not a sacrifice.’ Orthodox evangelists need today to draw the attention to the purpose and depth of the ecclesiastical rites, and to proclaim them as spiritual means and not as objectives in themselves.
g- Obedience: All His service was a continuous obedience of His Father. He waited for His Father’s declaration on His baptism before starting His service, although He could start His mission earlier. He obeyed until death on the cross, in self- denial and sacrifice.
The Church of The Apostles:
When the Jewish people refused the Gospel and it was clear that the message should go to the Gentiles, we noticed on the Pentecost Day the Holy Spirit prepared the apostles for evangelism through giving them the ability to speak the languages of all the well-known nations of that period. This shows us the basic fundamental requirement of evangelism, speaking the language.
The Characteristics of Evangelism in the Apostles’ Period:
1- Evangelism was the main objective of the church. The Lord’s left for the church a great commission “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. He who believes and is baptized will be saved: but he who does not believe will be condemned.” Therefore, the great commission of the church was very clear, to evangelize. The apostles did exactly that, and even when the numbers of the faithful reached tens of thousands, they never replaced evangelism with pastoral care or social services or construction or any other activities. They were well focused on evangelism. When there was a need for a social service, they asked the people to elect seven men to perform this service, and to let them, the apostles, concentrated on evangelism and prayers (Acts 6:1-6). Nowadays the Orthodox Church needs to focus again on the great commission left for her by the Lord, make it its top priority.
2- Evangelism was not only the objective of the apostles but also of all the faithfuls. Everybody in the church had evangelism as an important objective. Evangelism started with the person’s baptism, when he feels the light of the grace. Then it reinforced weekly when he/she received the holy communion, as they kept their eyes focused on the Lord’s commandment: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes” (1 Cor 11:26). We see this clearly after the great persecution that followed the martyrdom of St. Stephan when the faithful were forced to leave Jerusalem. We read: “Therefore those who were scattered went everywhere preaching the word” (Acts 8:4). In the Orthodox Church we need to raise the awareness of the importance of faithfuls’ evangelism.
3- Salvation was an objective of evangelism. The objective was not just preaching or educating or telling the story of Jesus, but rather ‘salvation.’ Not anyone joined the church, but only those who were saved “And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47). Currently, in our churches we are afraid of speaking about salvation because of fear that we may be labeled as Protestants, a practice that we need to ignore in evangelism.
4- Faith was a requirement to join the church. In the book of Acts, we read about so many incidents in which there were direct correlation between salvation and faith, such as in: “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household” (Acts 16:31). So, faith was a requirement for baptism. No body can get baptized without faith, and nobody got saved without baptism.
5- The Holy Spirit directed the evangelism efforts. We have read about the invitation of the Holy Spirit of Barnabas and Paul “the Holy Spirit said: “Now separate to Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them” (Acts 13:2). The book of acts showed us how the Holy Spirit was the leader in all evangelistic efforts.
6- Planting Churches: The apostles traveled from one city to another, proclaiming the Gospel, and baptizing people. Then they stayed not long in each city until they ordained priests and deacons from the indigenous. The apostles delivered the faith and established churches, ordaining clergy from the people for the people. They delivered faith, prayers, and worship means, but not culture.
7- Evangelists were filled of joy and the Holy Spirit. The lives of the faithful were characterized by joy and peace, as a result of the deep feeling of the work of the grace in their lives. Their lives were drastically different from those who were not saved, which attracted the unsaved. Evangelists were not only filled with joy but also filled of the continuous pouring of the Holy Spirit on them, “And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 13:52).
8- The church was a church of prayers. Prayers were the source of power for this church. From this church we learned about the great power of the “spontaneous prayers” “And when they had prayed, the place where they were assembled together was shaken: and they were filled with the Holy Spirit, and they spoke the word of God with boldness’ (Acts 4:31). Many nowadays belittle of the spontaneous prayers meetings and labeled them as Protestantism’s acts. In evangelism, we need to restore the ‘spontaneous prayer meetings.’ We need also to refer to the pure heavenly liturgical life they lived, which filled their hearts with ‘gladness and simplicity of heart’ (Acts 2:46).
9- A church of unity. ‘Now the multitude of those who believed were one heart and one soul” (Acts 4:31). This verse is just one example of numerous verses talking about the unity of this church. They loved each other deeply. The rich brought their money to the apostles and distributed it to everyone, as he needed (Acts 4: 32-37).
An Insight Into the Church of the Apostles:
10- This church never imposed any cultural aspects on any nation or community. Although most of the apostles were raised in Israel, however, when they preached the gospel, we did not hear about any application of Israel’s culture on any church. A lesson that we need to learn when we try to evangelize in the Western countries. Their objective was preaching the Gospel, and the power of the Gospel will change people’s lives. This church is the one that we can say about it that it never delivered any aspect of culture. It is a grave mistake when the church tries to deliver culture instead of pure and strong salvation. Sometimes, because of the cultural ties in the church, we think the spirituality of the church exists in all these cultural aspects. But the Apostolic period correct us. Here is the greatest church in spirituality because its people lived the Gospel and filled with the Holy Spirit without any help of the cultural aspects that are available today in the church. The Orthodox Church needs to discern faith from cultural aspects.
1- The apostles concentrated on the essence of salvation: faith, repentance, baptism, …etc. Their main interest was a church full of saved people who show the fruits of the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives, as a result of burying the old man and live in the newness in Christ. Compare this with some churches nowadays that may are full of people who are mostly not enjoying the fruits of salvation, because the old man still mastering their lives.
2- It was an Eschatological church. The church was waiting for His second coming. The greeting among the faithful was (Maran Atha = The Lord is coming), which inflamed with hearts with a great desire to be vigilant and to evangelize.
3- A poor church. It refused all materialistic richness, although it could collect much wealth if it wanted. Christ never called the church to live in materialistic richness. He ordered His disciple: “Take nothing for the journey, neither staffs nor bag nor bread nor money, and don’t have two tunics apiece” (Luke 9:3). Later on in the history when the church started to build up wealth and to live not according to the poverty of the gospel, the church lost the power of evangelism.
In conclusion, this church faithfully worked very hard in evangelism and succeeded in evangelizing most of the known civilized countries at the time. We need to devote more time to study the characteristics of this church as an introduction for us to learn about evangelism.
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What Did Happen During the Fourth and Fifth Centuries?
Before talking about this period, I’d like to make it clear that this is my own opinion, which people could debate or have different point of view from what I am going to mention here. The following does not belong to the teaching of the church or theology or dogma or tradition, but rather it is my personal interpretation of my reading to the history during this time.
During the fourth, and fifth centuries the church witnessed great evangelistic efforts and missionary work, for example, the birth of the Ethiopian Church and Christianity in Nubia as the result of Coptic missionary work. During this period appeared some of the great fathers of the church who did a great evangelistic work and left us a wealth of catechumen teachings, such as St. Cyril of Jerusalem, St. Ambrose of Milan, and St. Augustine in North Africa. Add to that the impact of monasticism and the School of Alexandria, as I explained before. Also, this period witnessed the great efforts of the church in defending its faith against the heresies. Christianity will not forget the life-long struggle of St. Asthanasius, St. Cyril of Alexandria and others against heresies.
However, this period also witnessed the starting of welcoming the world into the church. The politics found its way into the church. In many instances, the holy church matters were politicized between the emperors, queens, and some bishops. Sadly to say, some churches’ leaders desired personal gains, glory, and personal leadership of the church, more than seeking the glory of God and His guidance of the church.
Although the church got burned by the fire of heresies during this era, however, a deep analysis of the history will show that division, pride, love of being the first, jealousy, nationalism, and conspiracies were more damaging to the church than heresies.
As a result, the church almost lost the mission mind and its great commission given to her by Christ. Evangelism left its first place in the heart of the church to be replaced by pride, nationalism, struggle to be the first, and materialistic richness. When the church was under persecution, she lived in humbleness and meekness for the glory of her Bridegroom, and the world had no place in her heart. However, as a result of changing the heart, the church did not loose evangelism only, but also became so divided. Our Lord warned us against division, when He says, “Every city or house divided against itself will not stand” (Matt 12:25). When Islam appeared a few centuries later, it found an easy target, a divided house.
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My friend Mr. Nicholas Siniari, Adjunct Professor of World History, wrote a lengthy article about the history of Nubia, south of Egypt. I selected the following paragraphs about evangelism in Nubia to add at to this series:
“Egyptian monks were the first to establish Christianity in Nubia
during the persecutions of Diocletian (AD 284-305). The order of the great St. Shenoute is know
to have enjoyed good relations with local Baga and Nubian tribes. Converts were made, but the
royal family, and hence the majority of the populace remained pagan.
Around AD 350 Kush was defeated in an important battle by the armies of Axum and collapsed as
a result. It broke down into three smaller kingdoms: northernmost was Nobatia between the first and
second cataract of the Nile River, with its capital at Pachoras (modern day Faras); in the middle was
Makouria, with its capital at Old Dongola; and southernmost was Alodia, with its capital at Soba
(near Khartoum). All the while, amidst the political chaos of a great empire collapsing, the Egyptian
monks continued with their missionary witness.
Eventually, after much labor, the efforts of the Egyptian monks began to bear fruit. The number of
Nubians converting to Alexandrian Orthodoxy was steadily increasing. The Nubian faithful who had
embraced Orthodoxy requested a bishop to lead them. St. Athanasius (Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria)
consecrated Bishop Marcus as bishop of Philae before his death in AD 373. The rulers of the various
Nubian Kingdoms took note of the spread of Christianity among their subjects, and sent envoys to
Alexandria bearing gifts, and requested that the Pope send clergy to teach them. St. John of Ephesus
(of the Syriac Church) records that a Coptic priest named Julian baptized the king and his nobles of
Nobatia around AD 545. He also writes that the kingdom of Alodia was converted around AD 569.”
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Now, I come to the conclusion of this series on the ‘Brief History of Evangelism in the Orthodox Church.’ In this series, we followed the footsteps of our beloved Savior and the beloved fathers and others in their evangelistic efforts. The purpose was not to study the history alone, but to understand evangelism through study of its history, to know about practical evangelism and the thoughts behind evangelism that shaped all the efforts and directed them.
Did I cover all important aspects of evangelism history? Not yet. There’re still many evangelistic events that I am looking forward to cover one day when I have more information about, especially the Coptic missionary work in Europe (as in Ireland and Switzerland), also the Coptic evangelism in Africa (North Africa, Sudan), and the contemporary Coptic efforts in Fijji by H.G. Bishop Suriel, efforts of H.G. Bishop Paul in Mexico and other countries, and other contemporary Coptic evangelism servants.
After this study, I hope you gain a spiritual insight into the characteristics of the evangelist workers and evangelistic church, because this is the most important foundation for any evangelistic efforts. Then, I hope that you realized the continuous obstacles evangelism faced by those who can’t distinguish between the pure Christian faith and worship in one side and the culture which manifest itself in almost every aspect of life. We as evangelist servants have to study the impact of our own cultures on our Christian life, and courageously shed lights on them to distinguish between what is Christian Orthodox and what is cultural. As long as we hold on culture too tight, we can’t be evangelism servants, because its ties will cloud our evangelistic vision. Honestly, this culture impact still a big hinder of Orthodox evangelism in western societies today.
Some references I used in this study:
1- Luke Alexander Veronis, Missionaries, Monks, and Martyrs, Making Disciples of All Nations, Light and Life Publishing Company, 1994.
2- Steven J. Sfekas, George E. Matsoukas, Projects For Orthodox Renewal, Seven Studies of Key Issues Facing Orthodox Christians In America, Orthodox Christian Laity Inc., 1993
3- H. G. Bishop Antonius Markos, The Coptic Bishop of African Affairs, Come Across And Help Us, Book One and Book Two, Coptic Bishopric of African Affairs, 1988, 1996
4- History of the church lectures by the late Bishop Youaness, of Garbia, Egypt.
5- Otto Meinardus, Two Thousands Years of Coptic Christianity, The American University in Cairo Press, 1999