How did the early church grow? Part 1
These two posts cover 10 factors behind the remarkable growth of the Christian church in its first 500 years and beyond.
Each factor has important implications for how we think about mission and the church today.
It’s part history and part sociology. The material comes from a missiology lecture by Rhys Bezzant at Ridley.
PART 1: EXTRINSIC FACTORS
1. Societal realities
Through the widespread establishment of peace, roads, and trade, the Roman empire provided a network for the Christian church to spread.
The empire developed a prototypical multiculturalism, absorbing new religions into the Roman pantheon. Christianity gained some legitimacy under the umbrella of Judaism, which was an officially recognised religion.
Following the Diaspora, Jewish synagogues were established all over the empire, providing a ready-made network for Christian preaching and mission.
- IMPLICATION As far as possible, Christians can work within the realities of the society in which we find ourselves, making use of what is already there.
The intellectual fabric of the Roman empire was founded on Greek culture and language (Hellenisation), which provided a universal medium for the transmission of Christian ideas. The city, another Greek idea, provided an environment for Christians to organise their communities.
Christians sought to explain their faith in Greek terms and highlighted the continuities between Greek ways and Christian ways. Justin Martyr and other apologists presented Christianity as the true philosophy, the ultimate continuation of Greek thought. Although this helped spread Christianity, it led to Christianity translating itself into Greek metaphysical principles. Traces of these Platonic ideas can still be seen today, obscuring Christian hope.
- IMPLICATION Linguistic challenges are always worldview challenges. As we seek to make Christ known in another culture, we must take care: in translating our message into that culture’s terms, we risk compromising it.
3. Societal shifts
Roman social decay made Christianity an attractive option. The Roman mystery religions provided a form of community, but these were mainly for men and particularly soldiers. Nature religions only provided impersonal meaning, and tended to lose their appeal in new urban settings. Meanwhile, the imperial cult was impersonal and costly.
By the time Christianity arrived, Jewish ‘ethical monotheism’ was already an attractive alternative to the Roman religions: unlike the capricious imperial gods, the god of Judaism was both good and involved in the world.
The empire itself was becoming less attractive. Barbarian incursions were making imperial borders insecure, and internally displaced people were putting pressures on cities.
- IMPLICATION Let’s be aware of the points at which Christian faith and obedience is an attractive alternative.
Christianity eventually attracted the endorsement of the empire. In legally acknowledging and promoting Christianity, Constantine recognised that Christianity had already taken root. The church continued to flourish with this institutionalisation of Christianity. However, this led to the church softening its ‘quality control’ and dampening its eschatological hope, with many Christians believing that God’s Kingdom had arrived.
- IMPLICATION ‘Success’ always brings a whole new set of challenges!
Tertullian said that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. Today, we sometimes assume that Christianity has grown in places like China because of persecution. In the early church, however, persecution sometimes undermined the witness of the church, the pressure often contributing to Christian division rather than unity. In any event, persecution was neither consistent nor universal before the time of Constantine.
- IMPLICATION Growth must always be explained in terms of a range of missiological principles. Mission has no silver bullet.