How did the early church grow? Part 2
These two posts cover 10 factors behind the remarkable growth of the Christian church in its first 500 years and beyond. (See Part 1.)
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.
A book like Rodney Stark’s The Rise of Christianity is another good starting place.
PART 2: INTRINSIC FACTORS
5. Church structures
The early church developed a unified set of structures. Although we might be uncomfortable with how rigid these were, they facilitated the preservation and distinctiveness of Christianity. The establishment of the episcopacy (government by bishops) helped form the church into an empire within the empire, with its own social support systems and so on. Baptism provided a strong means of ‘quality control’ in Christian membership: Christians could only be baptised after six years of lessons, promoting authentic commitment. The church’s recognition of Christian scriptures enabled doctrinal norms and theological parameters to be established. These factors made the early church a coherent force.
- IMPLICATION A unity of purpose in the majority church will empower local witness.
6. Social action
Within the Christian community, women experienced care and protection and slaves were treated well, even where slavery itself continued. Christians buried the dead during plagues and cared for the sick. The Christian God of love was for all intents and purposes a marked contrast to the Greco-Roman deities.
- IMPLICATION Social engagement is not in opposition to evangelistic activism. We have a great commission to proclaim alongside a great commandment to love. It’s hard to keep the two together but we must strive for it.
Jesus’ command to go ‘to the ends of the earth’ (Acts 1:8) predisposed Christians to deliberately consider expansion. The Book of Acts ends with Paul established in the capital of the empire and a sense of Where to next? By Jesus’ time, the Old Testament had already made its way into Greek, and Christians continued to translate Christianity into every culture they met, translating their scriptures along the way.
- IMPLICATION Christianity is the religion of the incarnation: God has translated himself into human culture and we continue that translation process.
8. Where Christ was not known
The church first established itself in the cities. However, Christians have always sought to take their message to new places, such as Paul did (Rom 15:20). Monks like Martin of Tours left the cities and bridged the way to the ‘pagans’ (the country dwellers).
- IMPLICATION Mission never stays put! Are we keeping our horizons open?
However, at the fall of Rome it was monastic ministry that formed the source of cohesion for both the church and wider society. Monastic agriculture was the source of much of Europe’s food for 1000 years; at one point a third of England was run by monasteries. Monks were amongst the most important thinkers of the medieval world, just as the bishops had been in the early church. Their work fostered the purity of the church, looming large in figures like Martin Luther.
- IMPLICATION In order to reach today’s cities, we need to look again to our origins. It may even be the case that, just as in medieval times, the key to winning the cities is not actually in the cities!
9. Jesus and the universal gospel
Christianity is distinctively universal and inclusive: there is no special law; there is no special place; there is no special race. The growth of the early church was due in part to its recognition of the universality behind the Old Testament, which has the whole world on view. But at the heart of it all is Jesus, that one solitary life, who for many has been a deeply compelling person set in a deeply compelling narrative.
- IMPLICATION Theology drives mission.
10. Onward Christian soldier
Across centuries of ups and downs in church history, the common factor seems to be the Christian person. Although some famous preachers provided regional leadership, such as Ambrose and Chrysostom, the true hero of church history is the regular Christian believer. Their work is typically unrecognised and typically not part of a grand scheme. Even the churches of the New Testament for the most part have no named founders!
- IMPLICATION The engine room of mission is not an institution or a guru, but the local church in which Christian believers unite.