Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Robert Wilken compares evangelism in the early church setting and now

Robert Wilken is a highly respected scholar in the field of early Christianity.  In an interview format he makes some important observations about the setting of the Church before Constantine and today.  He highlights important differences that cannot elude our perception such as the fact that today we live in a culture that is post-Christian and he explicitly rejected Christianity.

However Wilken also notes three factors in the early Church that provide guidance for today. First, there is a desperate need for the Church to explain to people what she actually believes:
A lot of early apologetics was not defense but simple explanation. In his First Apology, Justin Martyr gave an account of Christian worship. He also talked about baptism. He didn't try only to establish a link to the larger culture or prove Christianity true. He also tried to tell people what Christians actually did in worship and what they believed.
Today I believe the most significant apologetic task is simply to tell people what we believe and do. We need to familiarize people with the stories in the Bible and to talk about the things that make Christianity distinctive. Many people are simply unaware of the basics of Christianity. They're rejecting something they don't know that much about.
Second, the Church needs to focus upon her existence as a close knit community with her own culture:
What about the tightly knit early Christian community—what can we learn from that?
I think that should be a main strategy of Christians today—build strong communities. The early church didn't try to transform its culture by getting into arguments about whether the government should do this or that. As a small minority, it knew it would lose that battle; there were too many other forces at work. Instead it focused on building its own sense of community, and it let these communities be the leaven that would gradually transform culture.
How did the early church build their community?
It built a way of life. The church was not something that spoke to its culture; it was itself a culture and created a new Christian culture. There were appointed times when the community came together. There was a distinctive calendar, and each year the community rehearsed key Christian beliefs at certain times. There was church-wide charity to the surrounding community. There was clarity, and church discipline, regarding moral issues. All these things made up a wholesome community.
Third, the liturgy of the Church's worship marked it off from the world and helped people to understand that what went on in the Church was completely different from the world. This he enormous implication for the Church's practice today:

I think seeker-sensitive churches use a completely wrong strategy. A person who comes into a Christian church for the first time should feel out of place. He should feel this community engages in practices so important they take time to learn. The best thing we can do for "seekers" is to create an environment where newcomers feel they are missing something vital, that one has to be inculcated into this, and that it's a discipline.
Few people grasp that today. But the early church grasped it very well.  


  1. What we now call the "Holiness movement"sought to do the same thing-create a distinct Christian culture in the midst of the dominant culture. Now, that would be called "pietism. "

    1. True, since the emphasis is on the "holiness" of the church member rather than on the Holiness of the Triune God and especially His Son whose holiness begets what holiness we may have.