Webber, Robert E. Journey To Jesus. The worship, evangelism, and nurture mission of the church. Abingdon Press. 2001.
R.W.- former director of the Institute for Worship Studies- Wheaton. Author of several worship-related resources.
Webber has taken a close look at “The Apostolic Tradition”, written by Hippolytus in 215, to learn about the practice of evangelism in the early church. Because of the similarities between the culture of Rome in which the early church functioned and our postmodern culture, he believes we need to take the model of the early church to develop the worship, evangelism and nurture mission of the church today. Webber identifies four phases and four passage rites of this model. They are: “Phase I- Evangelism of the seeker and the passage rite is Welcome. Phase II- Discipleship of the hearer and the passage rite is Enrollment of Names. Phase III- Spiritual formation of the kneeler with the passage rite of Baptism. Phase IV-Nurturing of the faithful into full membership and the passage rite is the Eucharist.” (12)
Robert’s research has added an interesting, helpful resource to the information about the early church.
The early church was in conflict with the Roman state government and the Roman religion. Christianity was defended by the “Apologists”. (31) The eschatological vision of the early church was “a perfect society in the future”. (33) To proclaim Christ as Lord and not Caesar put a Christian’s life in jeopardy. The church became the nurturer (mother) of its children. Conversion was sometimes an event, e.g. Paul, but always a process. Baptism for the early church was a powerful, public symbol of involvement in the Christian community.
The Constantinian model of the church and the Christendom that developed around that model are now history. Today’s culture is similar to pre-Constantinian times and the church must be relevant in that culture. Therefore the model of the early church needs to become today’s model for the church in evangelism, worship, and nurture.
The evangelism message of the early church was seeker focused. It stressed repentance and baptism, Acts 2:37-38. It was communicated wherever disciples (believers) went. It was a one on one approach and the results were phenomenal. The impact of the church was personal and communal. For those brought up in the Hebrew faith conversion was followed (shortly) by baptism. For Gentiles, there was a process of instruction after conversion and then baptism.
The evangelism model of the early church that today’s church needs to follow, includes rites and passages. Conversion comes with the rite of welcome as a “performative symbol”. (82) “The passage rite of conversion separates a person from his or her former life. It’s a rite of transition to a new way of life and incorporation into a new community.” (82) Discipleship is part of the conversion process. The final step of preparation for baptism is the “rite of covenant”. (116)
A person who is in the third phase of evangelism is called a “kneeler” (138). The passage rite is baptism. This rite is marked by and recognized by “spiritual warfare”. (140) The early church treated this rite as a spiritual birth that prepared a participant as a member of the church.
The final phase of evangelism was the receiving of the new members into the church and nurturing of those members. They were affirmed in their giftedness and empowered in their service. “The rite of Eucharist is the rite of fellowship with God and with each other.” (182)
Webber gives some practical suggestions to help those who would respond to his challenge to do worship, evangelism, and nurture according to the early church model.