Criswell Theological Review 5.1 (1990) 57-68.
Copyright © 1990 by The
CHURCH GROWTH AND
EVANGELISM IN THE
BOOK OF ACTS
THOM S. RAINER
Wth the exception of M. Green's Evangelism in the Early Church,l
the subjects of evangelism and church growth in the Book of Acts have
been unaccountably neglected in recent years. Church growth writers
refer to Acts rather consistently to support their theology and practice,
but no detailed work has come from the movement.2 Most evangelistic
works approach Acts from a theological perspective, building a bibli-
cal apologia for the mandate of evangelism: "Evangelism. . . must
find [its] orientation in the Bible. A return to the principles and prac-
tices unfolded in the Book of Acts is the only reliable answer."3
It would appear that evangelism in Acts has been viewed as one of
several facets to be studied. In other words, evangelism and church
growth are only two out of many areas which comprise the sum total of
the book. Such a perspective, however, seems to ignore the primary
motivation for the writing of the book. Luke the theologian is first Luke
1 See M. Green, Evangelism in the Early Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970).
This book covers the period from the ascension of Christ to the middle of the 3rd
century. Its focus on the early church in Acts in particular is exhaustive. Green's use of
both primary and secondary sources makes this book must reading for any scholar of
2 It cannot be denied that church growth writers focus on Acts more than any other
book of the Bible. To my knowledge, however, no church growth book with a complete
focus on Acts has been written. For an example of one church growth writer's use of
Acts, see C. P. Wagner, Strategies for Church Growth (Ventura, CA: Regal, 1987) 47-49.
3 G. W. Peters, A Theology of Church Growth (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981)
25. Peters focuses on Acts as much as any church growth writers although he does not
identify himself with the "Fuller" Church Growth Movement.
58 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
The value of redaction criticism is that it presents Luke as an
author who intentionally arranged his material in a precise order to
communicate a specific message, i.e., the evangelistic mandate. Ger-
man scholars such as M. Debelius, H. Conzelmann, and E. Haenchen
first applied redaction criticism to Acts in the 1950s. These men, un-
fortunately, approached the Bible with a skepticism that doubted the
accuracy of parts of Luke's historical narrative. The author, they say
sacrificed historical truthfulness for the sake of theological intent. We
must not, however, set accuracy in opposition to intent:
Luke is both historian and theologian. . . . The best term to describe him is
"evangelist," a term which, we believe, includes both of the others. . . . As
a theologian Luke was concerned that his message about Jesus and the
early church should be based upon reliable history. . . . 4
Luke is first concerned to communicate the message of salvation.
Evangelism and the resulting church growth are a priori concerns.
Salvation can be found in no one other than Jesus (4:12); salvation is
offered to everyone--the Spirit of God is poured out on pa?sa s<arc, "all
Hesh" (2:17); and salvation requires a response to Christ of repen-
tance/faith (Acts 2:38). Whereas the OT depicts "evangelism" as people
coming to God, the Lucan perspective demonstrates that God's people
(and indeed God himself) will seek and will go to the people. J. Blauw's
central thesis in The Missionary Nature of the Church is that "a cen-
tripetal missionary consciousness" becomes in Acts a "centrifugal mis-
sionary activity. . . the great turning point is the Resurrection, after
which Jesus gives his people a universal commission to go and disciple
Indeed Luke begins his narrative with an early mention of the
ascension. The apostles are found gazing skyward by two angels (lit.
men dressed in white," 9:11) who rebuke the men from
for focusing their attention on the empty skies that moments earlier
had framed the ascending Christ. Now, the angels imply, the apostle's
mission is "earthward," to proclaim this Savior to the world, to go to
the world rather than to expect the world to come to them. Such is the
essence of the entire book: outward-moving evangelism that results in
the growth of the church.
(Tyndale New Testament Commentaries; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1980) 18-19.
5 J. Blauw,
The Missionary Nature of the Church, rev.
mans, 1974) 34, 54, 66, 83-84.
Thom S. Rainer: CHURCH GROWTH AND EVANGELISM IN ACTS 59
The Terms Defined
At this point it is necessary to define the two words used to
describe the central activity of Acts: evangelism and church growth.
Evangelism in Acts is the communication of the good news of Jesus
Christ through verbal proclamation and lifestyle witness, with the
intent of leading a person or group to salvation in Christ. It is also
vitally interested in the postconversion activity commonly known as
through evangelism. While church growth writers of our era speak of
other kinds of growth (e.g., transfer growth and biological growth),
Luke is concerned with the growth of the church that comes from the
making of new disciples.7
The term "mission" is not used here to describe the thesis of Acts
since the word often refers to any ministry done for others in the name
of Christ. Evangelism and the resulting church growth, in that sense,
would be a subactivity of the total mission of the early church. It is
upon that arena of evangelism and church growth that Luke would
have us focus.
The Normative Versus the Exception
Much debate has transpired in recent years over certain events in
the Book of Acts. Is the tongues-speaking miracle of Pentecost an event
for Christians to expect today? Should the "signs and wonders" preva-
lent in Acts accompany our modern-day evangelistic efforts? Is Chris-
tian initiation a two-stage event, with conversion and water baptism
followed by the baptism of the Holy Spirit?8 Rather than elucidate the
arguments for and against such phenomena as being normative for
today, it is of greater value to focus on the areas of agreement which
were integral to the evangelism and church growth of the early church.
These principles are areas that virtually all evangelicals would agree
are normative for today. Indeed, contemporary evangelism and church
6 See Wagner, Strategies for Church Growth, 49-55, for a good discussion on
church growth and discipleship.
7 For a thorough discussion of the definition of church growth and its relationship to
evangelism, see C. P. Wagner, "Evangelism and the Church Growth Movement," Evan-
gelism in the Twenty-First Century (ed. by T. S. Rainer;
8 The best contemporary commentary on Acts, John Stott, The Spirit, The Church
and the World (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1990), addresses most of the issues on
the normative and non-normative events in Acts. Stott's commentary is balanced yet
uncompromising in its faithfulness to the text.
60 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
growth would be less than complete without these basic precepts
established by the early church.
The Principle of Prayer
Though church growth writers undoubtedly recognize that prayer
is indispensable to the growth of the church, many of the contemporary
writings fail to give prayer the prominent place it deserves.9 Luke
would not have us miss the priority of prayer in the growth and
expansion of the early church. J. Stott comments that following Jesus'
ascension, the prayers of the disciples had two characteristics which
"are two essentials of true prayer, namely that they persevered, and
were of one mind."10
The principle of unified prayer, or prayer with one mind and
purpose, is a thread that runs throughout Acts. Luke's initial description
of the 120 (1:15) shows that they followed Christ's command to wait
for the Holy Spirit by obediently praying as a group with one mind.
The power of "prayer in agreement" again is established when the
Sanhedrin threatened the followers with punitive action if they con-
tinued to speak about the "name" (4:18). The impulse to share was too
great, however, and a meeting of unified prayer sent the early church if
to new levels of boldness (4:31). "Having been bold in witness, they
were equally bold in prayer."11
Again, when Herod plots to destroy the evangelistic impetus
through persecution, the church unites in prayer (12:5):
Here then were two communities, the world and the church, arranged
against one another, each wielding an appropriate weapon. On the one
side was the authority of Herod, the power of the sword and the security
of the prison. On the other side, the church turned to prayer, which is the
only power which the powerless possess.12
The prayers of the "powerless" defeat all the weapons of the world.
Peter is rescued from prison by an angel, and the gospel continues to
spread (11:11). Herod is struck down by the Lord and dies a gruesome
death (11:23). The oppressing action against the church is permitted;
only for a brief season. The gospel, because of the power of prayer,
9 Notable exceptions to this statement must be recognized. For a concise summary
of the issue see E. C. Lyrene, Jr., "Prayer and Evangelism," Evangelism in the Twenty-
First Century (ed. by T. S. Rainer;
10 Stott, 52.
11 Ibid., 99.
Thorn S. Rainer: CHURCH GROWTH AND EVANGELISM IN ACTS 61
The Principle of Spiritual Warfare
Prayer was the primary weapon of the early church because the
followers knew their battle was "not against flesh and blood but. ..
against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms."13 Luke
would have his readers open their spiritual eyes to see the ongoing
conflicts between the Holy Spirit and Satan. One such confrontation is
stated explicitly in 5:3 when Peter accuses Ananias: "Ananias, how is it
that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit
and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the
land?" Stott finds the symbolism of the dragon's three allies in Revela-
tion to correspond to Satan's three weapons in the first chapters of Acts:
persecution, moral compromise, and distraction.14
Satan first attempts to destroy the church with persecution by
means of the Sanhedrin when the apostles are arrested, jailed, tried,
flogged, and forbidden to preach (4:1-22 and 5:17-42).15 The second
ploy of the devil is to ruin the Christian fellowship with the moral
compromise of Ananias and Sapphira. Satan is explicitly identified as
the source of the evil in this passage. The third weapon of Satan in Acts
is the subtle ploy of distraction. He attempts to divert the apostles from
their calling of prayer and preaching by creating a problem of social
administration (6:1-7). At each point when Satan attacks and the church
overcomes, a new wave of revival floods the church: "So the word
of God spread. The number of disciples in
idly. . ." (6:7).
Why is Luke concerned with his readers' understanding the prin-
ciples of spiritual warfare? The evangelist would have us understand
that such battle is normative for today, and must be fought and won in
order for God's word to spread and for disciples to increase in number.
Stott states the case well:
Now I claim no very close or intimate familiarity with the devil. But I am
persuaded that he exists, and that he is utterly unscrupulous. Something
else I have learned about him is that he is peculiarly lacking in imagina-
tion. Over the years he has changed neither his strategy, nor his tactics, nor
his weapons: he is still in the same old rut. So a study of his campaign
against the early church should alert us to his probable strategy today. If
we are taken by surprise, we shall have no excuse.16
13 Eph 6:12.
14 See Stott, 89-90, for a full discussion of this theme.
15 Ibid., 89.
16 Ibid., 105.
62 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
The Principle of God's Sovereignty
Despite the abundance of conflicts and setbacks to the early
church, Luke communicates clearly that God is the final victor. The
reader indeed anticipates each battle lost by the early church even-
tually to be reversed by the followers of the Way. God is in total
The martyrdom of Stephen (7:54-60) does not reduce the church
to a level of frightened ineffectiveness. To the contrary, the persecution
that broke out against the disciples scattered the church throughout
church as the dispersion spread the gospel to new areas. God in his
sovereignty turned defeat into a larger victory (8:4).
M. Green is correct in his assessment that Stephen's death led to
the beginning of a massive lay movement which spread the gospel.17
"amateur missionaries," those evicted from
Stephen's martyrdom, eventually became the leaders who changed the
face of the movement by preaching to the Greeks and initiating the
Gentile mission at Antioch.18
If the murder of Stephen was an external factor that led to the
growth of the church, Luke would have us note that numerous internal
problems were also turned into divine victories. One such example is
the Ananias and Sapphira incident of Acts 5. In his typical pattern of
conflict/surprise/victory, Luke relates what seems to be an overwhelm-
ing internal problem: deceit within the fellowship.19 The surprise factor;
is the death of the two perpetrators at the hands of God. The victory is
noted in a rapid-fire sequence of events: all who heard about the
incident were seized with fear (5:11); the "outside world" highly re-
garded the church (5:11); and "more and more men and women be-
lieved in the Lord and were added to their number" (5:14).
Acts, in one perspective, is a narrative of the sovereign work of
God in the midst of external and internal forces that would thwart any
"normal" movement. Luke's message is clear. Though we are the
vehicles to communicate the gospel, our strength and power is from
God. Even in the throes of seemingly insurmountable opposition, God's
work will not be deterred. The hero of the second portion of Acts, the
17 See Green, 172-73. Green contrasts the apostles as the "professional" ministers, to
the men evicted from
to our lay/clergy labeling of today.
18 Green, 173.
19 See Stott, 110, especially for his comment that Peter here assumes the deity of the
Thom S. Rainer: CHURCH GROWTH AND EVANGELISM IN ACTS 63
apostle Paul, would relate that same message to
the church at
“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who
love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”20
Principle of Strategy
While the sovereignty of God provides us with the comfort that an
all-knowing, all-powerful God is in control, Luke still emphasizes the
vital necessity of human cooperation. With specific instructions from
the Savior, the apostles established a strategy of evangelism to reach
gelistic strategy should not be set in opposition to a sovereign God, but
seen as a mandated action to fulfill the perfect purpose of God. An
evangelism that requires no work of the believers usually results in few,
if any, new believers.
The ministry of Paul provides a clear example of an evangelistic
strategy that he followed with only few exceptions. In an urban area,
the apostle would typically go first to the synagogue where he pro-
claimed the gospel to Jews and God-fearers. After his time at the
synagogue, Paul would then take his message to other Gentiles (i.e.,
other than the God-fearers), obediently following the command to
take the gospel first to the Jews, then to the Gentiles. Paul was not
haphazard in his strategy in proclaiming the gospel. The reader can
often predict the next move of the apostle because he remains so
deliberately faithful to his plans.
"reason" through the gospel (17:17).21 Though the synagogue would be
his first stop, he would then go to the agora to proclaim the message
day by day to whomever "happened to be there" (17:17). The agora
provided an area ripe for the gospel because it was both the "market-
place and centre of public life."22 Finally, Paul debated with the
Epicurean and Stoic philosophers at the Areopagus. Thus the apostle
delivered the good news to the Jews, to the common person "on the
streets," and to the intellectual powers of the area. In each situation, he
strategically communicated the gospel on a level that would be best
received by the hearers.23
20 Rom 8:28.
21 In Acts 17, the "reasoning" takes place at the synagogue in Thessalonica as well as
22 See Stott, 280-81, for a description of the agora.
23 Stott argues that a different methodology must accompany each different target
group for evangelism. The message remains constant, but the methodology adapts to the
situation. Ibid., 281.
64 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
More than one scholar has noted that Paul had a specific strategy
for urban evangelism. Stott notes that the apostle would move to a
neutral site after first proclaiming the gospel in the Jewish synagogue.
Such a strategy may often be normative for today. "If religious people
can be reached in religious buildings, secular people have to be reached
in secular buildings."24
Paul's strategy not only included a definitive place and plan, but
also an extended period for ministry. As a church planter, the apostle's
tenure at each location was significant. The ministry
have lasted at least two years, while Paul's time at
leadership longevity, citing pastoral tenure as one of the highest correla-
tive factors in growing churches.26 If a church planter would stay two
or three years, how long then should pastoral leaders commit them-
selves to a local church? The principles of leadership longevity and
tenacity in Acts are certainly normative for our churches today.
The Principle of Indigenization
R. Allen wrote two books early in this century that elucidated
principles of indigenization which are still discussed today. His two
main books, Missionary
taneous Expansion of the Church and the Causes Which Hinder It,
focused on the theme that Paul founded churches rather than missions.
little more than ten years
provinces of the Empire,
47 there were no churches in these provinces; in A.D.
speak as if his work there was done.27
Allen's primary thesis, that Paul founded churches, is well sup-
ported by Luke's record of the apostle's missionary journeys in Acts.
He did not, however, leave them without resources upon which they
could build their churches. When Barnabas and Paul returned to Lystra,
24 Ibid., 312.
25 See ibid., 313-14 for a discussion of Paul's tenure.
26 See J. N. Vaughan, "Trends among the World's Twenty Largest Churches,"
Church Growth: State of
(ed. by C. P. Wagner;
especially 131, where
fastest-growing churches is 20 years, and none of the pastorates have been less than ten
27 R. Allen, Missionary Methods:
mans, 1962) 3.
Thorn S. Rainer: CHURCH GROWTH AND EVANGELISM IN ACTS 65
remain true to the faith" (14:22). "The faith" must have been some
basic apostolic doctrine that formed much of our NT.28
Paul and Barnabas also left the indigenous churches with leader-
ship that would provide the direction after the apostles departed.
Though the forms of church government vary in the NT, at several of
the churches Paul and Barnabas appointed elders to continue their
leadership roles. The elders were within the church ("in each church,"
14:23), so the indigenization policy was complete.
While the evangelistic "policy" of Paul included doctrinal teaching
and leadership appointment, the apostle ultimately left the churches
under the divine care of the Holy Spirit. Seeking God's direction, "with
prayer and fasting, [he] committed them to the Lord in whom they had
put their trust" (14:23).
Such was the indigenization process of the early church. Doctrinal
guidelines and local leadership were provided, but the true step of
faith came when the church founders could walk away and leave the
church in the care of God. From a human perspective such a venture is
risky. It would seem that a new church left to fend for itself would be
an easy prey for doctrinal aberration, church schisms, outside heresies,
and moral failures. But God, throughout the history of the church age,
has proved his faithfulness. R. Allen's thesis, then, is largely true. Christ
was able, indeed desiring, to keep that which had been committed
to him. The indigenous churches became the growing, evangelistic
The Principle of the Open Gospel
The apostles most likely were unaware of the radical implications
of Jesus' command to be witnesses "in
unhindered by the wiles of Satan, the obstacles of geography, or the
prejudices against race. But the church would not always accept the
unstoppable momentum of the gospel with ease.
Philip took the bold step of preaching to the Samaritans. The
hostility between the Jews and Samaritans had existed for hundreds of
years when the gospel came to
of this major turning point: Philip's first going
lizing the Ethiopian eunuch (8:1-40). The gospel was breaking down
the barriers of both geography and race. The kingdom was larger than
28 See Stott, 235-36.
66 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
Gentiles began to be accepted and welcomed into the church
following the conversion of Cornelius (10:1-46). After initial objec-
tions, the Jewish church "praised God, saying, 'So then, God has even
granted the Gentiles repentance unto life'" (11:18). Then the Gentile
mission gathered momentum when the scattered church began spread-
ing the gospel to Greeks (11:20).
The tranquillity, if not euphoria, of the church was greatly dis-
turbed by a new policy that seemed to be developing among the
Gentile converts. They were becoming believers without becoming
Jews. They became a part of the Messianic community while retaining
their own cultural and national identity. Objections were raised, par-
ticularly by the Judaizers: "Unless you are circumcised, according to
the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved" (15:1).
The Jerusalem Council became a pivotal point in the history of the
early church. The assembly concluded that the Gentiles would be
accepted as bona fide members of the Christian community. Neither
circumcision nor adaptation to the Jewish community would be a
requisite. Green pleads that Christians today discover that same atti-
tude toward the unbelieving world. "Not to remove the scandal of the
gospel, but go to present their message in terms acceptable to their
hearers, that the real scandal of the gospel could be perceived and its
How many potential converts do we lose today because we make
the gospel something in addition to the grace of Jesus Christ? Is our
gospel open today, or does it carry the baggage of cultural expecta-
tions, idolatry of tradition, or denominational conversion? Green
catches the spirit of the post-Jerusalem Council early church, a church
that overcame the barriers of cultural conversion: "It would be good to
be able to feel confident that the churches of our own day were. . . dis-
playing anything like the same courage, singleness of aim, Christo-
centredness and adaptability as those men and women of the first
In a world that is becoming increasingly more complex, secular-
minded, and technologically advanced, Christians of our era should be
encouraged that many of the evangelistic principles of the early church
in Acts are normative for our churches today. The failure of many
churches to grow today is often a failure to realize and to practice these
29 Green, 142.
30 Ibid., 143.
Thom S, Rainer: CHURCH GROWTH AND EVANGELISM IN ACTS 67
basic principles. A recent survey of several Southern Baptist churches in-
dicated that none of the churches had an established prayer ministry.31
In response to the question, "Why not?" one pastor responded that "We
don't have to have a prayer ministry to pray at our church." By that
same logic Sunday school would not be necessary since most church
members read the Bible.
Churches today must place a priority on prayer which will be
evident in their programs, budget, and calendar. The early church
viewed prayer as the very life source of everything they did. Prayer
was not the leader in a series of programs; it was the foundation upon
which all other ministry was built.
Prayer was vitally important because the believers in Acts realized
that their battles were to be fought in the spiritual realm. Time after
time the early disciples are caught in "hopeless" situations. Luke would
have us see these dire situations so that the early church victories would
be clearly deemed miraculous, beyond the boundaries of the natural
We learn too from Acts that we can pursue the evangelistic man-
date while resting in the assurance that a sovereign God is in total
control. Hopelessness and helplessness are not options for Christians
who serve a God who will work his purpose for his glory. Yet the secure
reign of God should not be set in opposition to our purposefully and
strategically working as his colaborers. Luke writes Acts in rapid-fire
sequences, demonstrating that believers were persistently active in
prayer, evangelism, and service. The growth of the early church was a
direct consequence of the obedient colaboring of the Christians.
Finally, the history of the early church demonstrates that the
gospel is a message for all the people, and that the church is an
institution best left in the hands of its people. Colonialistic and paternal-
istic attitudes are contrary to the spirit of Acts.
How then can the principles of evangelism and church growth in
Acts be applied to our churches today? Perhaps the points below could
be a starting point for discussion.
1. Begin a prayer ministry which demonstrates commitments of
time, money, and people resources to the priority of prayer.
2. Lead the church to a commitment to give evangelism priority.
Evangelism was a way of life for the early Christian. Most Chris-
tians today have to refocus their efforts on evangelism to demon-
strate that priority.
31 This survey was conducted by me at the beginning of my ministry at Azalea
ministry for our church. Approximately 30 churches were included in the survey.
68 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
3. Plan the outreach and evangelism of the church thoughtfully. The
churches and evangelists in Acts had a well-planned evange-
listic and missionary strategy. We have no excuse today to be
ill-equipped, ill-informed, and unprepared in our evangelistic
4. Start new churches. The foundational evangelistic strategy of the
early church is still our best approach. And the mother church
should, as soon as possible, leave the new church to the sole care
and guidance of God.
In the churches in Acts, we see an evangelistic zeal and endeavor
to bring the community outside the church to salvation in Jesus Christ.
We cannot help but discern that evangelism was the church's highest
priority. Because evangelism was the final command issued by the risen
Lord, it became the very source of life for the churches in Acts.
Consequently, "The Lord added to their number daily those who were
being saved." It could happen again today. Such is the desire of our
Lord. He waits for our response.
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