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The power of witness: How the early Church evangelized

Despite persecution and derision as a marginal group, whose views contradicted the prevalent ethos of ancient culture, the Church grew by leaps and bounds.

A scene showing Christ Pantocrator from a Roman mosaic in the church of Santa Pudenziana in Rome, c. 410 AD. (Image: Welleschik/

“Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).

Peter finishes the first Christian sermon with these words, having powerfully preached the death and resurrection of Jesus. The crowd knew what had happened to Jesus 50 days earlier, as Peter reminds them that they themselves had participated in his death. From the day of Pentecost, the Church grew consistently, with Christians breaking bread in their homes, following the teaching of the apostles, and exercising charity to those in need.

The blueprint for conversion had been set, and the Church first expanded through the same style of preaching, perfected by Paul who went from synagogue to synagogue in the Greek speaking towns of the Eastern Mediterranean world. We see in Acts that he did indeed find Jewish converts, though he found much greater success among the God-fearing Gentiles, who believed in the God of Israel but remained uncircumcised. They recognized Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s plan to shed his light upon the Gentiles, which would be fulfilled through their conversion.

Paul delivered the first public appeal to a Gentile audience in Athens, drawing upon the Greek poets and pointing to God’s providence for all people. Many people refer to this speech at the Areopagus as a failure, although Acts does tell us that it made converts. Paul’s approach would continue in the early apologists, like Justin Martyr, who wrote apologies (defenses) of the Christian faith that engaged Greek philosophy and the Roman ideal of virtue. This approach would continue to appeal to those with a more intellectual bent, searching for truth amid the moral and spiritual confusion of the ancient world.

Despite these early successes, the synagogues quickly broke off contact with the early Church and the Roman Empire began an active, though sporadic, persecution. There had to be another way for the Church to continue to grow, and the answer would come through personal witness. Their different way of life was noticed by the surrounding pagans, and they wondered about it.

The sociologist Rodney Stark noted in his book, The Rise of Christianity, that Christian courage in the face of death particularly caught their attention. Christians were not only willing to die for their faith through persecution, they also accepted the risk of disease to care for the sick, even when they had been abandoned by their families. They cared for the poor, Christian and pagan alike, and treated women, children and slaves with greater dignity, including recovering abandoned newborns.

Christians clearly believed in something more powerful than any myth or philosophy and proved their faith through their actions.

Conversion began through relationships: family connections, neighbors and colleagues. Mike Aquilina describes this dynamic of the Church’s growth: “The common narrative, however, is a story of friendship. There was, as far as we know, no talk of evangelistic methods or institutional programs in the underground Church … it seems that Christians converted the world simply by befriending their next-door neighbors and persevering in friendship” (Friendship and the Fathers: How the Early Church Evangelized).

Likewise, Michael Green also points to how the Church’s growth “was in reality accomplished by means of informal missionaries,” engaging people in a natural and enthusiastic way “in homes and wine shops, on walks, and around market stalls … Having found treasure, they meant to share it with others, to the limit of their ability” (Evangelism in the Early Church, 243-44).

Despite persecution and derision as a marginal group, whose views contradicted the prevalent ethos of ancient culture, the Church grew by leaps and bounds. People wanted more. They sought for meaning and purpose beyond what the myths and mystery cults could offer and found a happiness more genuine than material pleasure. They could see Christians had something they lacked. They observed it every day and began asking questions. They came to know Jesus through their conversations with Christians.

When they were ready, they were brought before the local priest for examination and, if deemed ready, they became catechumens, starting off a more serious time of preparation through instruction, prayer, and moral growth. After years of testing, they would then be examined and elected by the bishop, and they would begin an even more intense period of purification during Lent to prepare to receive the sacraments during the Easter Vigil. Only then could the new converts, the neophytes, be admitted to the fullness of the Mass and community life within the Church.

Personal witness worked as a means of conversion even in difficult circumstances. This witness provides a model for us, as our culture begins to look more and more like the ancient world, lost and confused, seeking for greater purpose. As Catholic Christians, we can offer direction if we ourselves become true witnesses of Christ by living a different way of life.

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About Dr. R. Jared Staudt 57 Articles
R. Jared Staudt PhD, serves as Director of Content for Exodus 90 and as an instructor for the lay division of St. John Vianney Seminary. He is author of How the Eucharist Can Save Civilization (TAN), Restoring Humanity: Essays on the Evangelization of Culture (Divine Providence Press) and The Beer Option (Angelico Press), as well as editor of Renewing Catholic Schools: How to Regain a Catholic Vision in a Secular Age (Catholic Education Press). He and his wife Anne have six children and he is a Benedictine oblate.


  1. This image somewhat mirrors Christ’s own preaching (quoted from above) -:

    ‘ Despite these early successes, the synagogues quickly broke off contact with the early Church and the Roman Empire began an active, though sporadic, persecution. ‘

  2. This is very valuable information and is much appreciated.

    However, a major obstacle is heresy. That may be overcome, but it likely requires “changing the intellectual landscape” which – itself – is a product of conversions.

    As such, it is likely that TPTB know that it is important to keep people isolated. The current psychological, technological, and “legal,” means and encouragement to “cut people off” (e.g. blocking) is almost certainly designed to make sure that friendship is more difficult.

    When a person can decide not to answer the phone, email, text message, etc. and even unilaterally and irrevocably prevent another person from even contacting him through the same means, then relationships can be permanently damaged. And if they aren’t maximally damaged there is the resulting likelihood of “walking on eggshells.”

    • I think that is part of the point. This technology we live with offers tremendous reach and range but also comes with an off button, with huge doses of inaccuracy. Personal contact is the answer here. Lose the phone for a segment of your life.

  3. “Despite persecution and derision as a marginal group, whose views contradicted the prevalent ethos of ancient culture, the Church grew by leaps and bounds.”
    Exactly, thank you. And this should be our witness today also: rejecting the prevalent ethos of secular modern culture. When the Church more resembles the errors of the world who would be drawn to it?

    • Good point, dear ‘mrscracker’.

      We could add that humans everywhere have always been drawn to religion. Paleoarchaeologists tell us that Homo erectus, who colonized much of the world more than a million years ago, left evidence of religiosity. Homo neanderthalensis, the same, from about 400,000 years ago. Our species, Homo sapiens, began colonizing the world about 80,000 years ago and, from the start, left traces of their religious practices. Aboriginal peoples, who have occupied Australia from about 65,000 years ago, evidence deeply religious cultures (see amazing book by Scott Cane ‘First Footprints-the epic story of the first Australians’).

      From the start of organized agriculture & city building, in Anatolia (check ‘Gobekli Tepe’), Mesopotamia, Egypt, Phoenicia, Greece, Italy, the Americas, and everywhere, people were drawn to religion. Religion fulfilled a deep & universal human need. All this time, ‘gods’ were two-a-penny. Anyone could make an idol to worship.

      The big change came when one human, Abraham, had a direct encounter with the Living God, the One & Only, above all of heaven & earth! No longer did humans need ‘gods’ to fulfill our religious needs. Now, with Moses & the Prophets, the Living God began to firmly direct us as to what is pleasing to God, not to our worldly desires.

      A million years or more had produced innumerable human religions. Now, that universal phenomenon was overturned by a highly PARTICULAR one.

      Sadly, as the Old Testament makes clear, people tried to braid the old worldly ‘gods’ with the One True God. Particularity was mightily reasserted when God’s Only Begotten Son, Jesus Christ of Nazareth, came to make God’s requirements absolutely plain, by His obedience, His miracles, His sacrificial death & resurrection, His ascension & pouring out of God’s Holy Spirit on His faithful followers.

      Those Apostolic followers of Jesus made sure that everyone in the world had access to The Way, The Truth, & The Life by founding The Church, enshrining the 27 texts of The New Testament, & establishing the catechetical & sacramental basis for our lives as Christ followers. Note: this is PARICULARIZING not universalizing!

      Drawing large numbers to a ‘welcoming’ universalized church is no criterion of authenticity. Authenticity is built entirely on the PARTICULARITY of lovingly hearing & obeying the commands of God, made plain by King Jesus Christ, conveyed to us by the Apostles in The New Testaments, and enshrined in the Church.

      To try to change that is to wage war against God & against all that is right & true.

      You can’t get more PARTICULAR and less universal than: “No one can come to the Father except through Me.” John 14:6 “If anyone loves Me, they will keep My word & My Father will love them and we shall come to them and make Our home with them. Those who do not love Me do not keep My words.” John 14:23-24a. There’s no universalism in that!

      Catholics, even popes, can religiously claim to love Jesus & love people universally. Yet, the wise Catholic discerns Christ’s insistence that love for God is measured by the obedience of particular people to His instructions and example.

      These ‘particular’ or ‘peculiar’ people live to hear Jesus say: “Well done you good & faithful servant; now enter the joy of your Master.” They also live to lovingly bring the lost to saving faith, that is a listening to Jesus’ words and a lovingly obedient following. See John 10:27-30.

      The universalist heresy denies that eternal life is reserved for those who lovingly hear & obey Jesus Christ. Universalists are deceived in thinking that is merciful!

      A universalist heaven will therefore be indistinguishable from this fallen world!

      There is no mercy in a shirking our duty to live obedient to The New Testament and so lovingly proclaim Christ’s instructions to the lost, in hope that they will repent & be saved. See John 1:9-13.

      Religions, even universal religions, are human constructs, they cannot save. ONLY personal loving faith, obedient to Jesus Christ, can save each particular soul. Conversion from faith in this lost world to saving faith in Christ is PARTICULARIST, not universalist.

      Always in the love of The Lamb; love & blessings from marty

    • So true. Your point brings to mind a quote from JFK that goes something like “don’t get mad get even”, as any secularist would say. So today so many Catholic are essentially just like the secular culture. One could say it is too easy to being or saying one is a Catholic, maybe the early Church model of becoming and even staying a Catholic is the way to go. To push off the secular erosion of the Church, an ongoing lifetime Catechesis program is needed and required for all.

      • Good suggestion, dear GRM.

        If our aim, as a community of lay & ordained Catholics, is to constantly care for one another, until each of us (through good stewardship, study, prayer, & contemplation – thank you, Saint Anselm) can sincerely & joyfully say, with Apostle Paul: “It’s no longer I that live but Christ who lives in me!”

        As you say, today’s Catholics have been worn down by the world spirit. Lay & clergy together – we need to re-discover our lifelong high & holy vocation, to be dead to this world but ALIVE in Christ. That’s no part-time hobby . . !

        Ever in the grace & mercy of Jesus Christ; love & blessings from marty

      • Catechesis is definitely important, but so is the simple act of greeting each other in church. Not just our friends and relatives. I am a lifelong Catholic, and love my church, but I do find it cold and unwelcoming overall. We recently moved to a new city, and had to make great effort to connect with even a few people. And idea: What about smiling and saying hello as the first step to building a community for support of each other, and practice for befriending those neighbors and coworkers that we want to witness to the love of Christ.

  4. Yes! But which different life do you propose? A different Baptismal life than we presently witness…what does it look like, whatever this different is…? Easter mercies and miracles!

    • “Yes! But which different life do you propose?”

      Thanks, dear JMJ; a key question.

      Yesterday, in Australia we celebrated Saint Anselm of Canterbury, Bishop & Doctor of the Church. Reading St Anselm’s life story in Wikipedia gave an insight into the highs and lows of a fruitful follower of Jesus Christ.

      The first reading at Holy Mass was from Ephesians 3:14-19 – “This is what I pray, kneeling before The Father, from whom every family, whether spiritual or natural, takes its name.”

      “Out of His Infinite Glory may He give you the power through His Holy Spirit for your hidden self to grow strong, so that Christ may live in your hearts through faith, and then, planted in love and built on love, you will with all the saints have strength to grasp, the breadth & the length, the height & the depth; until knowing the love of Christ, which is beyond all knowledge, you are filled with the utter fullness of God.”

      That reading could be taken as the inspirational prayer and goal for a group of Catholics, lay & ordained, if we, together, generously & perseveringly encourage each other towards that fullness, as an attainable reality, when helped by The Lord.

      The Holy Gospel reading was from Matthew 7:21-29, where Jesus maximally emphasizes that it’s not religious ritual, rote, & repetition that gets a person into God’s Realm, but it is our putting into action the instructions Christ has given to us.

      Thus, a Catholic group intent on loving & encouraging each other into God’s Realm will have a persevering focus on prayerful study of The New Testament. Having become clear about Jesus’ instructions, they will find ways to act upon those commands.

      Dear JMJ, trusting these two short scriptures, chosen by the Church to celebrate Saint Anslem, are able to provide clear guidelines for a group of lay & ordained Catholics to move on in Christ and begin to bear good fruit in Him, the One True Vine.

      This is an example; local circumstances might vary your approach.

      Yet, everywhere across the earth, Catholics together need to more energetically live out our calling as newborn, spiritual beings, incorporated into the flesh & blood of the Risen & Ascended Christ, who, in God’s Glory, is our Living Head & soon returning Judge. I pray we regain understanding that our faithful fulfillment of our calling in Christ is the ONLY way this world can see the goodness of God’s plan.

      Ever in the love of The Lamb; blessings from marty

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  1. The power of witness: How the early Church evangelized – Via Nova
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