My parents love telling the story of my first evangelistic endeavor: teaching kids on my school bus to sing “Jesus Loves Me.” Apparently I found out one of my friends didn’t know about Jesus and I taught her to sing the song, instructed her to teach it to her parents, and went home convinced they’d all be Christians by next week.
While I hope I’ve grown since those kindergarten days, sometimes I fear my attitude toward sharing the gospel hasn’t changed much. Tell the gist of the story, hope for the best, and get off the bus at my stop. Many of our churches may unintentionally promote this thinking, too. We spend a lot of time focused on numbers: number of conversions, number of times the gospel was shared, number of baptisms. We can limit the scope of our responsibility to sharing the truth of the gospel and then leaving people to figure out the rest on their own.
Paul and Barnabas’ unusual route back to Antioch in Acts 14 shows us another way to think about evangelism. After their successful time in Derbe (14:21), they began their journey back to Antioch. Instead of taking the more natural southeastern route from Derbe back to Syrian Antioch, they went back the way they came: to Lystra, to Iconium, and then to Antioch. They didn’t share the gospel in these cities, check them off the list, and make their way home. They returned to the congregations they started and “strengthened the souls of the disciples” by reminding them that the persecutions they would suffer were not meaningless, but part of entering into the kingdom of God (14:22). They didn’t leave these new Christians without strong leadership or proper teaching; they returned to them and appointed elders whom they trusted God would use to nurture His church (14:23).
Paul and Barnabas’ actions reveal something important, even to those of us who will never travel hundreds of miles to share the gospel. They show us the importance of discipleship. They trusted that these new Christians, indwelled by the Holy Spirit, would be protected and sanctified by God. They also recognized that they were called to be a part of this process. They did not think this work was entirely up to them but prayed and fasted to seek God’s ultimate direction in their actions. They knew the importance of encouraging, teaching, and guiding these new believers, and they were faithful to the whole task God had given them, not only the beginning.
Who has God put in your life to disciple? Paul and Barnabas’ work may seem thrilling or impressive to us, but it probably looked a lot more mundane than we’d expect. They spent days just traveling between cities! When they encouraged these new Christians, it wasn’t always through dramatic speeches or eloquent moments. It may have looked like everyday conversations, small acts of service, or seizing minor opportunities to turn their focus toward the kingdom of God. We may not realize the opportunities we have in front of us to advance the kingdom, spread the gospel, and transform people’s lives. Instead of moving on to the next thing—the next city, the next mission, the next person—perhaps many of us are being called to return.
Return to people who need your guidance and love. Return to churches in need of your presence. Return to communities in need of your service. The route of return is not quick or easy—ask Paul and Barnabas after they walked back to all those towns—but it is often rewarding.
Week 4 Challenge:
The disciples were committed to strengthening and encouraging one another. Who can you encourage this week? Think of a way you can strengthen this person in her faith, and then do it!
Week 4 Reading Plan:
Week 4 Memory Verse: