Most proponents of door-to-door evangelism appeal to Jesus sending out the 12 (Mark 6:7-13) and the 72 (Luke 10:1-5) into the cities and towns to which he was planning on going throughout Israel. Proponents of door-to-door and open-air evangelism have long insisted, “Since this was the example of the early disciples it ought to be the practice we follow.” The same line of reasoning is, interestingly, made by Charismatics with regard to many of the supernatural practices descriptively outlined in the book of Acts. Anyone reading the Gospels or the book of Acts must surely recognize that these were no ordinary times.
Many of us who grew up in the D. James Kennedy era of Evangelism Explosion embraced the idea that spiritually mature Christians should be involved in formal and methodical one-on-one evangelism. The same is true of those who were influenced by the Way of the Master approach, spearheaded by Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron. I have personally benefited from both of these ministries at different times in my Christian life. As a young Christian, I had a compulsive zeal for door-to-door evangelism, as well as to preach extemporaneously in public settings. In seminary, I used to go with a friend to knock on the doors of the houses around the school I attended. On a rare occasion, we saw someone come to church with us and make a profession of faith. Additionally, my wife and I spent several summers working at the Boardwalk Chapel–an evangelistic ministry of the OPC in Wildwood, NJ. We would go out on the boardwalk many nights throughout the summer and talk with others on the boardwalk about the Gospel. I frequently preached from the stage inside the chapel to those passing by on the boardwalk. Once or twice, I tried my hand at open air preaching on the boardwalk. The last summer we were at the Chapel, a group of the staff members told me that a young man had come by asking for me by name. He told them that the summer before, he had heard me preach the Gospel and was, by God’s grace, converted. 15 years later, I think of that with hope that he truly trusted Christ. I sometimes even wonder what it will be like for us to be in glory together for all of eternity. While he knew my name, I still don’t know his. The Boardwalk Chapel was a special ministry tied to a wonderful local church. We need more ministries like it.
That being said, I have undergone something of a shift in my understanding about both door-to-door evangelism and open air preaching. For several reasons, I am not sure that they are as important or effective as I once believed. Most proponents of door-to-door evangelism appeal to Jesus sending out the 12 (Mark 6:7-13) and the 72 (Luke 10:1-5) into the cities and towns to which he was planning on going throughout Israel. Proponents of door-to-door and open-air evangelism have long insisted, “Since this was the example of the early disciples it ought to be the practice we follow.” The same line of reasoning is, interestingly, made by Charismatics with regard to many of the supernatural practices descriptively outlined in the book of Acts. Anyone reading the Gospels or the book of Acts must surely recognize that these were no ordinary times. Many of the methods and activities of the early church were circumstantially unique to that time in redemptive-history. There is, however, another factor to consider when seeking to understand whether or not Jesus commissioned door-to-door evangelism in the Gospels–namely, whether the text actually teaches that the disciples went door-to-door.
Luke 10:1-12 is one of the great passages about the evangelistic ministry of Jesus. The kingdom of God had come and was growing and spreading. Jesus had already sent out the 12; now he is sending out 72. The number 72 is a symbolic number, drawing from the Old Testament leadership in Israel. However, it is also a multiple of 12. Minimally, we are to understand that Jesus is multiplying laborers for the spread of the Gospel. In fact, Jesus prefaces his commission by saying, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” The Savior is equipping more laborers by giving them instructions about how they are to conduct the work of evangelism. He is also telling them what sort of outcome to expect. He sends them into the surrounding cities and towns. In a very real sense, Jesus is commissioning city-to-city or town-to-town evangelism, rather than door-to-door evangelism. In verse 7, Jesus says, “Do not go house to house!” I have sometimes jokingly said, “Jesus forbids door-to-door evangelism.” What is the point of Christ telling the disciples not to go house to house? Simply put, he is telling the disciples that there will be cities and towns that will be receptive to the preaching of the Gospel and to His messianic ministry, and there will be others that are not. Being welcomed into homes in receptive cities and towns served as a sign that the Lord wanted them to stay and labor there. This is clearly a redemptive-historical provision for a special work to which Jesus was calling the disciples. Yet, some aspect of it continues to be paradigmatic of the advancement of the Kingdom of God until Christ comes.