The tapestry of mission is beautifully woven with the work of both leaders and laity, men and women. And the very founding of the church in Europe was no different. In Acts 16:8–39, we find the first church in Europe, in the home of a business leader — a woman named Lydia.
After fruitful ministry in the Middle East and Turkey, Paul and his team receive a vision to come to Macedonia (near Greece in Eastern Europe). They make their way to the influential trading city and Roman colony called Philippi (named for the fourth-century B.C. emperor Philip of Macedon, son of Alexander the Great). From here, they establish the church and watch her grow as believers spread the gospel throughout the region (1 Thess 1; 2 Cor 8–9). The normal order of proclamation was first the synagogue and then the marketplace, as was the case in Acts 15, but Philippi is different.
Instead of in a regular synagogue, proclamation of the gospel begins in a women’s prayer meeting outside the city limits, near a river, the first place of proclamation and baptism of new converts in Philippi. One notable convert was a businesswoman named Lydia, originally from Thyatira (in Asia, or modern Turkey), who operated a luxury textile business in Philippi. She and her household are baptized there, and she then invites Paul and his team to her home, honored to offer hospitality, food, and lodging.
The “purple goods,” or “purple cloth,” in Lydia’s enterprise represent bespoke materials owned only by the upper classes. Unlike today’s natural or synthetic dyes, the purple dye in ancient times was a product of the Mediterranean murex snail. It took 10,000 snails to produce one ounce of pure purple dye. And it was an intricate, and smelly, process. We can attribute the phrase “stinking rich” to the odors connected with the rich colors (human urine was a common mordant, or setting agent). Lydia was probably a regional trader who brought luxury goods from Asia to markets in Macedonia, Philippi her primary residence.
Monks, missionaries, and merchants pioneered numerous new communities along trade routes, the gospel advancing through the first Christian communities located in urban centers, then fanning out to the neighboring hamlets. Church historian Justo Gonzalez, when asked how the Christian message grew so quickly, in terms of both influence and geography, in the Roman Empire, replied that it was the work of everyday people sharing their testimonies of transformation. While there were significant apostolic missions, and the works of early leaders are honored, the laity led with their stories, with their “come and see” invitations to fellowship and worship.
From merchants along the Silk Road for a thousand years (400-1400) to lay persons of the last two centuries, in prayer and outreach, God’s people have joined Jesus in his mission of reconciliation. Evidence of both apostolic leadership and lay influence is found in the Book of Acts, as the gospel begins moving in a Jewish prayer meeting and extends to all peoples in the Roman Empire (Acts 2, 28). The Holy Spirit regenerates and empowers believers through Peter’s preaching and Cornelius’ influence in Acts 10. Believers are first called Christians in Antioch in Acts 11 as Gentiles, those with no background in Judaism, embrace the faith. By Acts 15, the church is blessing the mission of proclamation to synagogue and marketplace, welcoming Jewish followers of Jesus and declaring non-Jews equally welcome by grace, not by ceremonial conformity.
The Apostle Paul’s strategy is summed up in Romans 1:16-17: The gospel is God’s saving power to the Jews first (by reason of being God’s ancient people through whom the Messiah came to our world) and then to all, as it is received by faith.
In the 21st century, faith and work leader Mark Green declares that our daily work is in fact the frontline of God’s mission — as most of God’s work in the world takes place through people who spend most of their waking hours working. For believers, all of life can be a seamless integration of worship and work. There are no longer sacred and secular realms of life as we offer everything to God in gratitude for his grace (Rom 12:1–2, Col 3:17–23). Everyday business leaders and workers have tremendous influence for the kingdom as they carry out their work.
In Lydia’s case, church historians affirm, her importance and influence continued in Philippi after Paul and his companions departed for new cities. Her large home (a domus) became the place where church leaders discipled others, hosted worship, and commissioned elders in new house churches. Her outstanding reputation for holiness, leadership, generosity, and hospitality only helped the church grow. Some scholars say she fulfilled the function of a regional bishop, alongside the redeemed, once-enslaved Onesimus (Philemon). Whatever her possible title, her conversion and her household were vital to European Christianity.
From the story of Lydia, there are four insights that can inform our mission today. These ideas are universal for all streams of Christian tradition.
1. The Holy Spirit has been given to all believers.
For regenerating grace, sanctifying strength, and missionary empowerment. This is powerfully simple: All believers are not only participants in grace and fellowship; they are also on mission with Jesus, fulfilling the Great Commission, calling all people to lives shaped by the Great Commandment and the Great Invitation (Matt 28:18–20, 22:37–40, 11:28–30). This is why pastors and spiritual leaders must equip their communities for kingdom impact on Monday, not just Sunday.
2. All the diverse gifts of Christ are not confined to church gatherings or clergy, but are accessible by all, 24/7 (Rom 12:3–8, 1 Cor 12, Eph 4:11).
The late Roger Stronstad declared that the day of Pentecost empowers the “prophethood of the people of God,” even if not all people of God are prophets. Pope John Paul II also spoke affectionately of the “apostolate of the laity.”. Yes, God appoints particular leaders to oversee and protect, but, as Luther’s great hymn declares, “The Spirit and the gifts are ours, through Him who with us sideth.” The people of God who spend their days working in the world should expect confirmation of their prayers and their witness.
3. God delights in using “outsiders” and unexpected persons in furthering his mission.
From the blessing of pagan generals and widows to delayed judgment in Jonah’s reluctance, we see God’s glory by his care for all people. The New Testament extends this same Hebrew narrative as Jesus bestows grace to sinners, affirms the faith of Israel’s enemies, and declares a divine reversal of fortune as the humble are elevated and the arrogant dethroned.
Silk Road merchants brought Christianity to Asia for a millennium. Waldensian lay-leaders used trade fares to call for reformation of the Roman Catholic Church in the 12th and 13th centuries. John Wycliffe commissioned the laity to go into villages to read Scriptures in English in the Lollard movement. The Brethren of the Common Life (led by Thomas A’Kempis, author of The Imitation of Christ) brought renewal to Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries. One scholar said the reformations of the 16th century were as much the work of booksellers as preachers. The Methodist movement of the 18th and 19th centuries empowered laity for evangelism and discipleship. The “telegraph revival” of the late 1850s saw nearly one million business people come to faith as they gathered for lunchtime prayer meetings. And today we see unprecedented global growth of the church through lay-leaders.
4. Lydia is a reminder of the importance of place in the work of God.
The local church, born through the proclamation of the kingdom of God, consists of a people, gathered in a place, with a shared purpose. God chose Philippi as the site of the first church in Europe, and God chose Lydia as a key catalyst in that work.
The church is the local, relational, and tangible revelation of the wisdom of God (Eph 3:10). The languages and liturgies will vary, and the family tables will have different menus — but in all places where the gospel is proclaimed we have church. The primary apologetic of the gospel is the beautiful community of God’s people, who love the Lord and their neighbors, who seek the common good where they live.
Are we open to fresh empowerments of the Spirit as we seek God’s glory? The same community empowered in Acts 2 was filled again in Acts 4. Are we open to God using anyone he chooses to be the person of peace or the catalytic community agent? Do we really believe the Spirit is given to all believers? Will we rediscover place in the pan of God, perhaps seeing the “where” of mission afresh?
Our humble intercessions, our halting speech, the simple works of our hands, our compassion, and our hospitality are all markers of grace for a watching world. Just as Lydia opened her home in gratitude, as places of divine mission, we can open our hearts and homes afresh.