Criswell Theological Review 5.1 (1990) 57-68.

              Copyright © 1990 by The Criswell CollegeCited with permission. 



                CHURCH GROWTH AND

                   EVANGELISM IN THE

                          BOOK OF ACTS


                                         THOM S. RAINER

                                  Green Valley Baptist Church

                                       Birmingham, AL 35226


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

the evangelist.


            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.




            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

the nations."5

            Indeed Luke begins his narrative with an early mention of the

ascension. The apostles are found gazing skyward by two angels (lit.

"two men dressed in white," 9:11) who rebuke the men from Galilee

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.


            4 See I. H. Marshall, The Acts of the Apostles: An Introduction and Commentary

(Tyndale New Testament Commentaries; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1980) 18-19.

            5 J. Blauw, The Missionary Nature of the Church, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerd-

mans, 1974) 34, 54, 66, 83-84.




                                        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

discipleship.6 Church growth is the building of the church primarily

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; Wheaton, IL: Shaw, 1989).

            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.




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,

spreads unhindered.


            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; Wheaton: Harold Shaw, 1989), 89-102.

            10 Stott, 52.

            11 Ibid., 99.

            12 Ibid.




                        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 Jerusalem increased rap-

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.




                        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

Judea and Samaria. The defeated church then became the proclaiming

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

The "amateur missionaries," those evicted from Jerusalem following

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 Jerusalem as the "amateur" missionaries. The analogy, of course, is

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

Holy Spirit.




apostle Paul, would relate that same message to the church at Rome:

“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

Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth (1:8). Such evan-

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.

            In Athens, for example (17:16-34), Paul goes to the synagogue to

"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

in Athens.

            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.




            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 at Corinth would

have lasted at least two years, while Paul's time at Ephesus reached

three years.25 Church growth writers understand the importance of

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 Methods: St. Paul's or Ours? and The Spon-

taneous Expansion of the Church and the Causes Which Hinder It,

focused on the theme that Paul founded churches rather than missions.

In little more than ten years St. Paul established the Church in four

provinces of the Empire, Galatia, Macedonia, Achaia and Asia. Before

A.D. 47 there were no churches in these provinces; in A.D. 57 St. Paul could

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,

Iconium, and Antioch, for example, the believers were encouraged "to


            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 the Art (ed. by C. P. Wagner; Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1986),

especially 131, where Vaughan states that average tenure among pastors of the world's

fastest-growing churches is 20 years, and none of the pastorates have been less than ten


            27 R. Allen, Missionary Methods: St. Paul's or Ours? (6th ed; Grand Rapids: Eerd-

mans, 1962) 3.




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 Jerusalem, and in all Judea and

Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (1:8). The gospel would spread

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 Samaria. Luke seems to relish his recall

of this major turning point: Philip's first going to Samaria, then evange-

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.




            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

challenge faced."29

            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

Christian century."30




            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.




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

Baptist Church in St. Petersburg, FL, in order to obtain information regarding a prayer

ministry for our church. Approximately 30 churches were included in the survey.




      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.




This material is cited with gracious permission from:

The Criswell College

4010 Gaston Ave. 

Dallas, TX   75246


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