June 24, 2019
Many of us who grew up in the D. James Kennedy era of Evangelism Explosion embraced the idea that spiritually mature Christians should be involved in formal and methodical one-on-one evangelism. The same is true of those who were influenced by the Way of the Master approach, spearheaded by Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron. I have personally benefited from both of these ministries at different times in my Christian life. As a young Christian, I had a compulsive zeal for door-to-door evangelism, as well as to preach extemporaneously in public settings. In seminary, I used to go with a friend to knock on the doors of the houses around the school I attended. On a rare occasion, we saw someone come to church with us and make a profession of faith. Additionally, my wife and I spent several summers working at the Boardwalk Chapel--an evangelistic ministry of the OPC in Wildwood, NJ. We would go out on the boardwalk many nights throughout the summer and talk with others on the boardwalk about the Gospel. I frequently preached from the stage inside the chapel to those passing by on the boardwalk. Once or twice, I tried my hand at open air preaching on the boardwalk. The last summer we were at the Chapel, a group of the staff members told me that a young man had come by asking for me by name. He told them that the summer before, he had heard me preach the Gospel and was, by God's grace, converted. 15 years later, I think of that with hope that he truly trusted Christ. I sometimes even wonder what it will be like for us to be in glory together for all of eternity. While he knew my name, I still don't know his. The Boardwalk Chapel was a special ministry tied to a wonderful local church. We need more ministries like it.
That being said, I have undergone something of a shift in my understanding about both door-to-door evangelism and open air preaching. For several reasons, I am not sure that they are as important or effective as I once believed. Most proponents of door-to-door evangelism appeal to Jesus sending out the 12 (Mark 6:7-13) and the 72 (Luke 10:1-5) into the cities and towns to which he was planning on going throughout Israel. Proponents of door-to-door and open-air evangelism have long insisted, "Since this was the example of the early disciples it ought to be the practice we follow." The same line of reasoning is, interestingly, made by Charismatics with regard to many of the supernatural practices descriptively outlined in the book of Acts. Anyone reading the Gospels or the book of Acts must surely recognize that these were no ordinary times. Many of the methods and activities of the early church were circumstantially unique to that time in redemptive-history. There is, however, another factor to consider when seeking to understand whether or not Jesus commissioned door-to-door evangelism in the Gospels--namely, whether the text actually teaches that the disciples went door-to-door.
Luke 10:1-12 is one of the great passages about the evangelistic ministry of Jesus. The kingdom of God had come and was growing and spreading. Jesus had already sent out the 12; now he is sending out 72. The number 72 is a symbolic number, drawing from the Old Testament leadership in Israel. However, it is also a multiple of 12. Minimally, we are to understand that Jesus is multiplying laborers for the spread of the Gospel. In fact, Jesus prefaces his commission by saying, "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few." The Savior is equipping more laborers by giving them instructions about how they are to conduct the work of evangelism. He is also telling them what sort of outcome to expect. He sends them into the surrounding cities and towns. In a very real sense, Jesus is commissioning city-to-city or town-to-town evangelism, rather than door-to-door evangelism. In verse 7, Jesus says, "Do not go house to house!" I have sometimes jokingly said, "Jesus forbids door-to-door evangelism." What is the point of Christ telling the disciples not to go house to house? Simply put, he is telling the disciples that there will be cities and towns that will be receptive to the preaching of the Gospel and to His messianic ministry, and there will be others that are not. Being welcomed into homes in receptive cities and towns served as a sign that the Lord wanted them to stay and labor there. This is clearly a redemptive-historical provision for a special work to which Jesus was calling the disciples. Yet, some aspect of it continues to be paradigmatic of the advancement of the Kingdom of God until Christ comes.
What then we do with the example of the Apostles in the book of Acts? Clearly, the Apostles were engaged in open-air evangelism. No one can read those sections of the book of Acts in which the great sermons of Peter, Phillip, Stephen or Paul are recorded and come away denying the role that extemporaneous preaching in public settings played in the advancement of the Kingdom after Jesus' ascension. I once held to the opinion that this was normative for the church and that, if we are faithful, we too would follow this example. What I failed to understand as a young Christian was that the intertestimental period was a transitional period during which the New Covenant church was being established among unreached people, primarily through the instrumentality of open-air, evangelistic preaching. As the church was formed and ecclesiastical government was established, we find less of this approach and more of the shepherding preaching within the context of the local church. This does not mean that it is wrong for men to be zealous to engage in open-air preaching. It does mean that we need to account of the uniqueness of the circumstances. The Apostle Paul, for instance, went into the Areopagus and reasoned with the philosophers and teachers there (Acts 17:16-34). The people there had never heard the Gospel before. There was no New Covenant church in Greece that could carry out the Great Commission. Perhaps the university campuses of our day would be analogous to the Areopagus; but, it would be impossible to carry over the exact cultural context of Athens in Paul's day into the 21th Century in our North American context where solid local churches have been established and are being planted.
This necessitate a few further qualifications and thoughts. First, I do not believe that we have adequately committed ourselves to the teaching of our Lord Jesus about the evangelization of the world. What I have said above ought not diminish a zeal for evangelism. We can too easily write off our responsibility to bear witness to Christ because of methodologies with which we are uncomfortable. Rather, this ought to encourage us to think through ways that are consistent with Scripture and our own context to carry out the Great Commission faithfully. What would that look like in our context? I believe that the Great Commission should be properly carried out under the oversight of the local church. It should, first and foremost, be obeyed by ministers of the Gospel. The Apostle Paul told Timothy, "Do the work of evangelist" (2 Tim. 4:5). Evangelism is hard work. It take time, prayer, thoughtfulness and diligence. It is too easy to lag off with regard to an evangelistic zeal. It is too easy to write it off under the notion of other priorities in the local church taking precedent. We have to think through both the foreign and home missions aspect of the Great Commission.
William Carey is a great example of what a modern day evangelistic ministry among unreached people should look like. He opened his home, started schools, planted churches and trained pastors to carry out the Great Commission. The carrying out of evangelism must begin with the minister of the Gospel himself having a vision for an evangelistic component built into the life of the local church. In some sense, it is a long term vision; whereas, door-to-door and open-air preaching can be a quick fix approach.
In our own context of home missions, it would look like equipping a congregation to be outward focused, intentional about inviting unbelievers into their home and ultimately to sit under the preaching of the Gospel in the local church. It would look like committing to planting new churches where there is a need for a biblically faithful church. The people who say, "We have too many churches. There is a church on every corner" probably don't go to any church on any corner. My dad used to say, "Christ would be pleased if there were solid local churches in every neighborhood in every community on the face of the earth!" It might look like having a Christianity Explored course offered sometime during the week at the local church. It might look like hosting a Mother's of Preschoolers group in which the Gospel is taught to women who participate from the community. It certainly might include building out local church Bible studies in which the members are encouraged to invite friends, neighbors or co-workers. We have to think categorically about those with whom we rub shoulders on a daily or weekly basis. These, it seems to me, are far more effective methods than going door-to-door or to engaging in open-air preaching.
While the disciples and Apostles did exercise their gifts of preaching and teaching among the unreached in unique ways and circumstances, they did so with the goal of establishing local churches. The local church, in turn, became the typical way in which the world would be reached with the Gospel. The city-to-city approach of Jesus supports the conclusion that the Savior is establishing His kingdom in communities and not simply among individuals. It would serve us well to rethink the biblical call to city-to-city evangelism, bolstered by the ministry of the local church in which we are committed.
Editor's Update: Al Baker has written a response to this article, which can be read here.