I suspect many Christians, at one time or another, have asked themselves if there is an ideal way they should go about sharing the gospel. In light of Jesus’ great commission in Matthew 28, we know we are to share the gospel, but perhaps we wonder if there are ideal environments in which to do so. Maybe you just heard a missionary speak at church and are inspired to evangelize in all arenas of your life, but then a return to the workplace reminds you of the barriers to sharing the gospel in that context. I believe biblical examples can help inform how we go about sharing the gospel. In particular, let us glean insight from the recorded evangelistic activity in the book of Acts of one of the greatest missionaries in Christian history, the apostle Paul. We will look at Paul’s evangelism in ideal opportunities, Paul’s strategy for evangelization from scratch, and Paul’s edification of local churches.
Lest the pattern obscure the exceptions, we should note that Paul shared the gospel in the ideal opportunities God gave him. In Acts 13, Paul addresses “the whole city” who gathered to hear him (Acts 13:44-49). In Acts 14, he has a gospel conversation with the gentile crowd which was offering sacrifices (Acts 14:11-18). Acts 16 sees Paul, who was thrown in jail, sharing the gospel with the Philippian jailer and his household when brought to the jailer’s home (Acts 16:25-34). In Acts 17, Paul is brought to the Areopagus by philosophers who wanted to hear what he was teaching, and Paul had an evangelistic discussion with them (Acts 17:18-34). Paul, in Acts 22, shares his testimony on the steps of the barracks to the Jewish crowd that was accusing him (Acts 21:37-22:21). In Acts 26, Paul shares his testimony to King Agrippa, Bernice, and Governor Festus when Festus summons Paul for examination to inform what he writes to the emperor (Acts 25:23-26:29). Finally, in Acts 28, Paul proclaims the gospel to “all who came” to him while he was under house arrest in Rome (Acts 28:30-31).
I mention these instances so we can see that when God brought an opportunity to Paul for him to share the gospel or have an evangelistic conversation, he took it. Paul shared the gospel in some of the most eclectic environments, the steps to a barracks, at the Areopagus, and before political figures, all because God brought such opportunities his way. He is an excellent example of 1 Peter 3:14-16,
“But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.” – 1 Peter 3:14-16
As Christians, let us always strive to be ready to “make a defense to anyone who asks [us] for a reason for the hope that is in [us]”. If God lays opportunities in our lap to share the gospel, we should be eager and willing to take them, as Paul did, in whatever context we find ourselves.
Having acknowledged that Paul shared the gospel in the ideal opportunities presented, we should also note that such situations were the exception, not the norm. It was far more common to see Paul come to a new city to evangelize and start such efforts from scratch. Often, there was no gathered crowd just waiting for him to share the gospel. In such circumstances, where Paul had to start from scratch, what did he do? Did he have a strategy to evangelize more effectively? I would argue he did, and it is perceptible in the book of Acts. Before going further, let me state that historical examples in Scripture aren’t binding on Christians like a command in the New Covenant era is. Nevertheless, historical examples can show us an application or living-out of such commands, though all Christians may not be bound by the same application (see Prescriptive Vs Descriptive for further discussion). Returning to how Paul obeyed the great commission command to “make disciples of all nations”, he appeared to have a predictable strategy. His strategy, as I would describe it, was to target institutions and locations where people were more likely to be receptive to the gospel or discussion of its component parts. He appeared to prioritize evangelizing at religious institutions. Time and again, Paul went to the synagogue in a city to share the gospel, even after he stated “From now on I will go to the Gentiles” in Acts 18:6. The following is a sampling of such instances:
“When they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews. And they had John to assist them.” – Acts 13:5
“Now at Iconium they entered together into the Jewish synagogue and spoke in such a way that a great number of both Jews and Greeks believed.” – Acts 14:1
“Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures” – Acts 17:1-2
“The brothers immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue.” – Acts 17:10
“Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there.” – Acts 17:16-17
“And he reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and tried to persuade Jews and Greeks.” – Acts 18:4
“And they came to Ephesus, and he left them there, but he himself went into the synagogue and reasoned with the Jews.” – Acts 18:19
“And he entered the synagogue and for three months spoke boldly, reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God.” – Acts 19:8
Now why did Paul target a religious institution like the Jewish synagogue? We aren’t told why in Scripture, and I can’t speak for Paul. Admittedly, this is conjecture, but plausibly it was because the people there had a greater openness to discussing the Old Testament Scriptures Paul often reasoned from. Perhaps because the people there were more religiously inclined. Perhaps it was because there was a greater collection of people there; so, Paul could speak to more people at a time, or maybe Paul was just familiar with that environment, having been a pharisee in the past. Maybe it was a combination of those reasons, or it was another reason all-together. In any case, it’s hard to not notice that synagogues were locations where larger groups of religiously inclined people could be found. In instances where he couldn’t go to or was kicked out of the synagogue, Paul would target other locations where there was presumably greater openness to discussions of the gospel. For example, in Acts 16, Paul went to a “place of prayer”.
“And on the Sabbath day we went outside the gate to the riverside, where we supposed there was a place of prayer, and we sat down and spoke to the women who had come together.” – Acts 16:13
In Acts 18, after encountering opposition to the gospel message in a synagogue, he then starting meeting in a house next door to the synagogue (Acts 18:7), perhaps because it was accessible to those who would go to the synagogue.What seems discernible from Paul’s example is that he targeted locations where people were more receptive to the gospel message or religious discussions; places where perhaps he could have a greater impact.
Briefly, let us move from discussing how Paul lived out the evangelization component of the great commission (make disciples of all nations) to seeing how he lived out the edification component (teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you). In Acts, we see many instances where Paul edifies local churches and groups of believers; and he, again, appears to do so in a way that would have the greatest impact – by addressing the church or church elders as opposed to just individual Christians.
“And when they arrived and gathered the church together, they declared all that God had done with them, and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles. And they remained no little time with the disciples.” – Acts 14:27-28
“but Paul chose Silas and departed, having been commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord. And he went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.” – Acts 15:40-41
“Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him.” – Acts 20:17
Now we also see in Acts that Paul did edify individuals and small groups of believers, but more often than not he appeared to intentionally target the whole church or the church elders; presumably because he could impact more Christians.
What can we conclude from the example of Paul’s activities in Acts? As stated earlier, historical description isn’t exactly binding on Christians like a command would be, nevertheless, I do believe the way Paul went about fulfilling the great commission should help inform how we go about it. Namely, we should prioritize targeting institutions and locations where we believe we can have the biggest impact; areas where we believe people are more open to gospel conversations. As to where those locations are, it will vary from place to place. Cultural circumstances look different around the world; so, it will take a good measure of personal judgement and cultural awareness to deduce where such opportunities lie. Nevertheless, let us aim to target areas where we can have the biggest influence with the gospel; yet always be willing to share the gospel in the various opportunities God brings our way, whatever that environment may be.