Paul understood that his life’s work was “to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God” (Ephesians 3:8-9). But how exactly did he do that? How does anyone do that?
When you think of Paul and the apostles’ preaching, you probably imagine grand public sermons preached to riveted audiences of eager listeners. In the beginning, there was some of that. In the first half of Acts, our definitive history of the spread of the gospel in the earliest years, public sermons were emphasized in the story. Peter and the apostles preached to crowds in Jerusalem on Pentecost (Acts 2) and again in the following chapter (Acts 3). A few years later, another famous sermon is recorded, once again, in Jerusalem. Stephen preaches to a crowd that would ultimately become a mob (Acts 7). About ten years later, another sermon is recorded as Paul preaches to the Jews in Antioch (Acts 13). About five years later, Paul preaches his famous sermon in Athens (Acts 17).
It is worth noticing that we have essentially no examples of what exhortation sounded like as a church gathered for worship. We have likely mistaken these extraordinary examples as templates that every Sunday sermon should follow as if each Sunday our preachers speak to unbelieving masses at Athens instead of to the same crowd of believers that attend most every worship service of their local church.
We should also notice that these large, public events become increasingly rare as the gospel goes out into the world. After Acts 17, the only examples we are offered come from special occasions. Paul delivers a message to a delegation of elders from Ephesus in Acts 20. In Acts 22, he speaks to a gathered mob. The final two sermons of Acts are delivered in judgment halls to Roman officials (Acts 24 & 26).
While there is certainly more happening in the early years of the church than Luke records in Acts, it appears that large, public sermons were not the norm for evangelistic efforts. They had a place, and they always will, but the gospel normally spread through more ordinary settings.
Specifically, the book of Acts depicts the gospel as being shared one family at a time. The first Gentile convert does not result from a public sermon but rather a personal message delivered “to you and all your household” (Acts 11:13-14). Lydia hears the gospel by the riverside, and after “she was baptized, and her household as well” (Acts 16:13-15). Likewise, the jailor converted at Philippi heard the word of the Lord spoken “to him and to all who were in his house,” and after “he was baptized at once, he and all his family” (Acts 16:30-34). In Corinth, Paul shared the gospel at the home of Titius Justus, whose “house was next door to the synagogue. Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed in the Lord, together with his entire household. And many of the Corinthians hearing Paul believed and were baptized” (Acts 18:7-8). Paul describes his preaching to the Ephesian elders as “teaching you in public and from house to house” (Acts 20:20). Even outside of the Acts account, Paul records working in homes: “I did baptize also the household of Stephanas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else” (1 Corinthians 1:16).
I glean from this summary a simple observation about early evangelism. Families were both the means and the goal of evangelism. Households were the churches of the earliest years, and there was often more success when people gathered around tables than around lecterns.
A glance at church history will give you similar evidence. John Chrysostom, one of history's greatest preachers, wrote: “Turn your home into heaven; you will do this not when you change the walls or rebuild the foundation, but when you invite the Almighty Lord to your repast. God never disregards any kind of supper. … Where the husband, and the wife, and the children are in accord and united by the bonds of virtue, there is Christ among them.”
Elsewhere, he writes, “A house is a little Church. Thus it is possible for us by becoming good husbands and wives, to surpass all others.”
Centuries later in America, Jonathan Edwards would say these words in his Farewell Address, “Every Christian family ought to be as it were a little church, consecrated to Christ, and wholly influenced and governed by His rules. And family education and order are some of the chief means of grace. If these fail, all other means are likely to prove ineffectual."
Our churches have mission committees and evangelism seminars. We have practiced routines for sharing the gospel with strangers, and we carve out segments of our budgets for sending missionaries around the globe. We hire ministers to preach to our Sunday worship assemblies. All of this is fine and good, but there is a simpler message on each page of the Book of Acts.
The family is the mission. It is the means and the goal of evangelism. We must make our families into little churches, and make evangelizing our homes our first duty. Once infused with gospel and grace, those families will be the backbone of every church and mission. No revival sermon preached to masses will replace prayers said at dinner and gospel shared around the table. If you desire to be a true evangelist, you will first share the word of the Lord “when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (Deuteronomy 6:7).
Your home is your first congregation. Attend it well.