This past week was the annual Wheaton Theology Conference, cosponsored by InterVarsity Press. This year's theme was "Ancient Faith for the Church's Future," exploring how the early church's theology and praxis intersects with our contemporary context.
One session that I found particularly interesting was presented by Alan Kreider of Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, who talked about the early church's approach to evangelism. In summary, the early church was not actually very "evangelistic" by our terms. The patristic literature did not emphasize the Great Commission. They didn't have official evangelists, missionaries or mission boards. They did not have exhortations to evangelism (though they had exhortations to martyrdom!). They did not have prayers for the conversion of pagans, though they had prayers asking for God's help to love their pagan neighbors and enemies. And in certain eras, church worship was actually closed to visitors, with deacons at the door serving as bouncers, restricting entrance to the unbaptized. Not the most seeker-sensitive approach to ministry!
And yet the early church grew and grew and grew, even without intentional evangelistic strategy or ministry. How? By being the most attractive community in the Roman Empire. The early Christians rescued abandoned babies and raised them as their own. They gave dignified burials to all, regardless of economic status. They cared for the sick; instead of abandoning the cities in times of plague, they stayed and cared for the sick and dying, even if it meant their own deaths. It was said of the early Christians that "they alone know the right way to live."
It wasn't until after Constantine that conversion became a matter of advantage rather than attraction, or eventually by compulsion. Only after Constantine did people reject the church on moral and ethical grounds and begin to accuse Christians of hypocrisy. Prior to that, the church was known as the people of compassion, love and peace.
It was interesting to ponder how the church could recover that kind of pre-Constantinian attractiveness in our post-Constantinian, post-Christian, postmodern context. For those of us who have struggled with being "evangelistic," it's encouraging to know that the early church grew not because they were distributing gospel tracts but because they were practicing hospitality, neighborliness and social concern for the poor and marginalized. That still seems to me to be a prophetic countercultural stance in today's context.