by The Rev. Dr. R. Leigh Spruill
Have you ever wondered how it happened that the small band of early Christian believers became the seeds for a new religion that is still going strong two thousand years later with more than two billion adherents? Given the rampant religious pluralism of the ancient world, how did the early church survive past that first or second generation of Christians? In the decade following the resurrection of Jesus, the church was a marginal religious movement of a few thousand believers on the fringes of society. Despite much persecution and social stigma, within three hundred years, the church claimed roughly 35 million people representing more than half of the Roman Empire. How did this kind of exponential growth happen?
A traditional answer is that it was a miracle. The Holy Spirit did it. While this response may satisfy the true believer, in and of itself, that answer is not likely to persuade a modern skeptic. To such a person, sociological and political factors must have played critical roles.
One of the world’s preeminent scholars on the phenomenon of early church growth passed away this past July here in Texas. Rodney Stark died in July having served as Distinguished Professor of the Social Sciences at Baylor University and co-director of the Institute for Studies of Religion. His most celebrated book, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries (1997), was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. That book and others by Stark influenced my own strong interest in the history of the church’s first centuries. He is cited often in my doctoral dissertation.
Not surprisingly, numerous historical variables shaped the development of the primitive church. Yet Stark’s scholarship, as well as that of others, point to this as the most crucial reason for the rise of Christianity: the content and character of the gospel itself and the way it was lived out among its believers in their homes and day-to-day relationships. That is, the main reason why the church not only survived but spread to transform the lives of millions of people in such a short span is found in these familiar words: “for God so loved the world…,” a revelation of God in Jesus far more transformative in the lives of those early adherents than any of the various philosophies or pagan gods of the day. And the witness of such transformation happened in everyday life—in ordinary homes where interaction with friends and neighbors was commonplace.
In the coming weeks, I will communicate more about the historically significant, and contemporary relevance of the home as the locus for loving our neighbors and the city. An emphasis on developing “neighborhood groups” anchored in our homes will be a key strategy for growth and maturity going forward here. Suffice it to say that for now, we need to be reminded that prior to any public church buildings or campuses, the first congregations met in homes. The shared life in these Christian homes was defined by an unusual degree of intimacy, frequent and routine fellowship, and keen awareness of distinction from other social groups and belonging.
When it comes to the New Testament, I often say that some of us have an image of St. Paul venturing into cities of the Roman Empire and convincing large crowds of people to become Christian by force of his rhetorical skill like a first-century version of Billy Graham. This is a false image. For the most part, Paul traveled to and corresponded with existing Christian communities already located in households. He went with the goal of energizing them and intensifying their commitments in order to help these house fellowships become better equipped and motivated to share the love of Christ with those non-Christians with whom they were already in some social relationship, usually their friends and neighbors. It was not Paul who brought the gospel to the masses but “ordinary” early believers who became motivated to share the gospel within their existing social networks. And the most basic unit of mission was the most local: the home.
I find this historical scholarship not only fascinating but enormously encouraging. As we focus our energies on a more robust future for SJD and becoming an even brighter light for the city, we are wise to remember that in Christ, the most powerful is so often the most ordinary and simple. Jesus called ordinary men and women to be his followers. He told simple stories about seeds and sheep and workers. He ate and healed and taught in ordinary homes. And he does so still among those whom he loves, calls, and sends. May the future here witness an explosion of energy and experimentation as we contemplate new ways our homes may become centers of life and light for the sake of our neighbors. More to come….!
“People value religion on the basis of cost, and they don’t value the cheapest ones the most. Religions that ask nothing get nothing.”
The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries (HarperSanFrancisco, 1997)
As shared above, this is an important book. Stark examines the many variables that led to the startling growth and tenacity of the church’s early life including organization and leadership, the witness of the martyrs in the face of persecution, the charitable response of the church to famine and plagues, the family life and moral values of early Christians, and the critical role of women. All these factors had a significant impact on non-Christians who would in turn join the movement. But perhaps none was as significant as Christians living out their new faith in ordinary domestic life among family, friends, and neighbors.
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